Whipping up something good at Sailor’s Rest Farm
LINCOLNVILLE – 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 she makes it look so easy.
The best part about being invited to a casual dinner at Ladleah Dunn and Shane Laprade’s house is because "casual" for them means dozens of fresh oysters, followed by a rabbit ragout, followed by home brew made with their own hops. Naturally.
Let me back up. They have a lot of friends who visit and most tend to be foodie types or chefs; these are hard working people with a drive for authentic flavors.
It happened to be one of those down afternoons when all the farm, garden and boat refinishing chores had been wrapped up for the day. One of their good friends, Rodney Winchell, the wine guy and bartender at Street and Company in Portland, recently visited them in Lincolnville and brought up 100 Winterpoint oysters.
“He’s got all these food connections and he just happened to score a great deal, ” said Ladleah. “And under the other arm he’s got a case of wine. That’s just how he likes to visit people.”
As mentioned in the last Sailor’s Rest column, Ladleah approaches food like jazz improvisation, choosing phrases and contours of flavors that drop in harmoniously to the original recipe. While Rodney set the oysters on a bed of ice and began carefully opening each one, Ladleah whipped up a mignonette ice, which is a savory accompaniment to raw oysters.
“Because the frost had been coming on, I’d been picking a few things,” she said. “So I used some shallots, some lemon verbena, a little bit of chile and some white vermouth. Then I froze it, spun it on an ice cream maker and spooned it over the oysters.”
Nothing is better than freshly opened local oysters, chilled and tender with a sharp mignonette ice that reminds you who’s boss.
Meanwhile, the second course was going to need some attention. And typical of a night at this house, it was going to be slow cooked, probably not ready ‘til about 9 p.m., while the wine flowed. Rodney brought up some fresh rabbits in addition to everything else.
“It’s like that stone soup kind of thing,” said Ladleah, who finds my columns about her kind of weird, because of the way I glorify cooking behaviors that are just so normal to them. It’s not “amazing” to them. It’s just food. “Everybody brings something to the table and that’s part of the creative process.”
So, the rabbits. He handed them over to Ladleah and they discussed how it should be prepared. “We always riff off each other,” she said, “and he’s a really great sous chef, but he definitely defers to me when he’s here.” She laughed. “That’s part of the fun. We say to each other — what can we go out to the garden and harvest for this dish? I send him out with a basket and some scissors and he comes back with something great.” That evening, Ladleah chooses to simply go the stock peasant route and braise the rabbit with Asian greens picked from the garden, along with her own garlic, shallots, onions and tomatoes. Slow-cooking it for three or four hours, it becomes a delicious, earthy ragout.
"So many people go Europe for this kind of agro- and gastro- tourism, where they go to a farm and participate in the harvesting and then get to create the meals from their labor, " she said, "but Maine and the Midcoast, heck, Lincolnville is just as happening when it comes to food and neighbors and friends bringing something to the meal."
That’s exactly the point of these Sailor’s Rest columns. That’s what we are doing. And because prepping and enjoying this dinner for six-to-seven hours isn’t enough, at 10 p.m., Rodney and Shane get inspired to home brew a batch of beer from hops they’ve picked from their own farm. “’Cause that’s what you do here at Sailor’s Rest Farm,” Ladleah noted, with a hint of self-deprecation, as if she just now sees how over-the-top this must seem from someone else’s perspective.
The dried green hops that had been hanging on their porch have now been gathered into a wide basket. In the process of making beer, they have cooked them down. “Making beer is like cooking down grains, making grain soup,” explained Ladleah. “The hops are what give the aromatic or flowery or bitter qualities. The grains provide the backbone for the beer.”
“The thing is,” she laughed, “making beer that late in the night after all the wine we had, the guys threw all kinds of stuff into the beer like rosemary, but it actually turned out pretty good. A nice, dark, robust beer with lots of hoppiness and herbs.”
And with that, another casual meal concluded. Follow our running column on Sailor's Rest Farm to see what else she’s got cookin’.
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org