Ladleah Dunn is a sailor and a damn good cook. More importantly, she aims not to take the foodie industry in Maine so seriously or make it too precious. Her culinary adventures stem largely from her own small farm in Lincolnville. What’s ridiculous is how easy she makes it look.
“Let’s make some clams tonight,” she proposed one afternoon by the beach. All it took was wresting some ocean quahogs out of the seabed at low tide. [Note: while collecting quahogs from certain areas of Maine’s shoreline is legal, best to check the Maine Dept. of Marine Resources for red tide and other harvesting rules.]
“There are parts of the Maine coast where you can legally dig for clams and we were lucky enough to find some of these beautiful ones," said Dunn. “So, let’s do something with it.”
The ocean quahog is like The Incredible Hulk of clams; four or five of them suffice to make dinner for four. But first, it would take six hours of preparation. For Dunn, that's no big deal, especially with a bottle of wine and friends to pass the time.
As she set the live, rinsed quahogs on ice (where they hissed through bubbly ligament that attached to its hinged shell) occasionally, a “foot” stuck out to test its surroundings.
According to the Maine Sea Grant website, ocean quahogs (also called the large surf or hen clam) are among the longest-lived marine organisms in the world, capable of living longer than 200 years. Dunn eyed the ones we were making and estimated they were about 40 years old. “Before we get too sad about this,” she explained, “I’d rather harvest this myself and use all of its parts respectfully (including shells for compost), rather than buy chicken parts under cellophane, without knowing how the animal lived or died.”
The most amazing part of this elaborately simple meal is that it was created on a whim and nothing required going to the store. "Luckily we've created a little farm here where it is like its own grocery store; there is a large variety of herbs and vegetables, fruits, eggs, meats, etc. Then we get to use all that creativity that is usually only engaged when it's for a paycheck and we just get to do it for fun," she said, as she pulled up some onions from the ground. Next, she got an armload of applewood out of the wood pile and unwrapped some pork belly from a pig they’d raised and butchered several seasons ago.
“None of this is work to me,” she said. "We just cook because we love cooking and it's the kind of inspiration and passion that drives us to stay up really late cooking for someone else. For me it's an opportunity to feed that creativity." With friends and her husband assisting, she diced the onions, prepared an outdoor grill with applewood, and chopped up the pork belly. By this time, night had descended and the long droning zipper sound of crickets filled the woods. Once the wood had turned to coals, the quahogs were set on the grill. Eventually, they began to cook within their shells and open. Setting them aside, Dunn continued to sit by the grill and sautée the onions and pork belly, while inside the house, her husband chopped up quahog meat. We opened another bottle of wine.
Finally, near 9:30 p.m., the mixture of quahog, pork belly and onions were ladled back into half shells, topped with homemade flatbread croutons, chives and orange cherry tomatoes and thrown under the broiler. What came out was a savory, bacon-y dish punched with intense flavor. That would be the entire course, just a stuffed half shell, but filling enough. Gone, of course, in under five minutes, the way good cooking disappears, but a meal never to forget.
Follow Dunn’s blog, Sailor’s Rest Farm to see what else she’s got cookin’.