BELFAST — Campers and hikers have long relied on civilian MREs, the military term for Meals Ready to Eat, those self-contained, individual field rations in lightweight packaging. But, as anyone who has ever ripped open a pouch of Chili Mac can attest, there’s the good, the bad and the unpalatable.
And then, there’s the superb.
The Maine Meal, based in Skowhegan, is a company producing all-natural, gourmet recipes made by chef Mark LaCasse. Sourcing from local farmers and fishermen, including from his fellow vendors at the Belfast Farmer’s Market, LaCasse’s boil-in-a-bag soups, pastas, stews and meals are all crafted in his commercial kitchen before he places them in BPA-free food grade bags and vacuum seals them before freezing them.
Mark grew up in Skowhegan, cooking with his grandmother, where he developed a love for the art of cooking. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 2007, Mark and his wife, Kelly, also a local food advocate, moved to Nicaragua to run an eco-resort together.
“I ran the kitchen and Kelly ran the resort, but when we had a child, we knew it was time to move back to Maine,” said Mark.
With a young child, the LaCasses were not interested in working long hours at a restaurant at that point.
“You need to work nights, weekends, and holidays to run a successful restaurant, which we enjoyed when we were younger, but we wanted to spend more time with our family, so a friend suggested that I make prepared meals,” said Mark. “I looked into it and there wasn’t much going on in Maine in that area, so I decided to start The Maine Meal in 2012.”
Monday through Wednesday, Mark preps all of the meals in his commercial kitchen inside a building in Skowhegan that actually used to be his grandmother’s restaurant. Thursday through Saturday, he travels to a number of farmer’s markets all over Maine and sells his products directly to the consumer.
The Maine Meal’s haddock chowder and squash apple bisque are two of his biggest sellers.
“I use high quality ingredients that we source from a number of Maine farmers and fishermen, and these are all my original recipes I’ve worked on for years,” he said.
Take the braised beef chuck: Locally raised beef is slow cooked for six hours and served in a cabernet sauvignon demi glace, topped with caramelized local onions and sauteed wild mushrooms. It’s a gourmet meal in a bag. Several recipes are also vegetarian, vegan and gluten free, such as such as a Cilantro Bean soup or a Garden Vegetable chili.
For one person, the portion size is hearty and costs $11 a meal. This is not only great for individual hikers, campers and boaters, but it is also an excellent option for homebound seniors, who only need to pop a bag in boiling water for 15 minutes and it’s ready.
LaCasse is also offering a Gourmet Meals CSA-membership in Maine that delivers a certain amount of product directly to the consumer’s home. For example, with a $50-$200 membership, (which can be monthly, every three months or six months) all one has to do is choose the products on the website, and they will be shipped in a reusable cooler to the recipient’s door.
The LaCasses’ entrepreneurial effort not only helps to support and sustains Maine’s food economy, but they are also are working on scaling up and offering collaborative workforce development opportunities in their community.
“Like many people in rural towns in Maine, we have been through a lot and this area is working hard to make sure all members of our community have the opportunity to thrive,” he said. “If we can be a small part of that — mission accomplished.”
Check out their website to see where you can pick up The Maine Meal locally.
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org