Recipes for this Story
Sweet Potato & Green Apple Soup
Pork Medallions with Almond-Fig Cream
Written and produced by Stephen Exel
Photographs by John Bessler
As the weather changes along Maine’s Atlantic coast, so does the landscape’s palette. The brilliant green and bright sky-blue of summer drifts into feathery harvest auburns and golds, then plunges into a crisp-white winter.
Even when the summer season ends, coastal towns still have much to offer, says Mary Jo Brink, gracious co-owner with her husband, chef Michael Salmon, of the Hartstone Inn in Camden. “There’s hiking, sledding, tobogganing, downhill and cross-country skiing. It’s cozier,” she notes. And, of course, “it’s also time for cooking classes.”
At Hartstone Inn, an 1835 Federal-style home converted in 1986 to an inn, there are comfortable rooms and tranquil carriage suites. The kitchen, housing a collection of tin candy molds and copper pots, was designed to serve the restaurant as well as host classes for 10 to 15 students. A large granite counter is command central.
The classes, held November through March, include single-subject and “chef for a day” sessions. “Students get as involved as they wish,” Michael says. “Some like to chop every leaf; others prefer to watch.”
Michael and Mary Jo travel extensively through Europe and lived and worked for three years in Aruba, where Michael was named Caribbean Chef of the Year. These global influences, plus training at the Culinary Institute of America, influence the stellar five-course dinners he prepares nightly and the classes he teaches, including Caribbean and Thai cuisine, pasta, dim sum, and tapas.
I’m attending a Fall Dinner Party class, with a menu similar in style to dinners at the inn. Truthfully, I’m always anxious about pulling off a multicourse dinner at home--timing and space issues can be daunting--and this class offers direction for getting everything on the table in an orderly fashion.
Afraid to serve a soufflé? Don’t be. “The way Michael teaches makes me feel like this is something I can accomplish,” says return student Ellen McMullen. “It all becomes very doable.”
Class begins with a cocktail--something I would never have at home prior to cooking. Michael’s Cranberry-Limoncello Martini is a sweet-tart sipper made with cranberry syrup base. (Its effect reassures me that my guests will overlook any mistakes I make!)
During class, Michael highlights how to coordinate the menu with a relaxed, easy style. While the dishes we prepare are quite refined, we learn simple techniques along with the secret alchemy that turns basic ingredients into sophisticated culinary delights.
Our first dish is Sweet Potato & Green Apple Soup, a starter that can be made ahead and reheated. Roasting sweet potatoes cut lengthwise into “planks” exposes a greater surface area for caramelization. In Maine, maple syrup is an essential ingredient. Some is stirred into the soup, and Maple Cream tops it off. This smooth, hearty, and tart soup is sublime on a crisp fall evening.
Stilton-Shrimp Tarts offer a tangy contrast to the soup. Chive Buerre Blanc and slices of Bosc pear accent the tart. Michael explains the secrets to his flaky crust. “Don’t overmix the dough,” he says. “Make sure to chill it a good amount of time--at least two hours. Four hours is prime.”
The main course, Pork Medallions & Almond-Fig Cream, is a luscious dish with a salty-sweet sauce inspired by travels through Tuscany. It takes a mere 30 minutes to prepare. Keep warm until serving time.
Soufflés often conclude dinner at the inn. Michael showcases them with a seasonally inspired Pumpkin Soufflé. With advance preparation, soufflés can be popped into the oven after the main course and be ready in 35 minutes. Serve a small bite of cheese and simple lettuce greens during the interim.
In class, siblings Jessica and Tim Stammen jump in to show off their skills in getting prep work completed. The two come from a family of avid cooks and share a friendly competition.
“When we eat out, it’s at the Hartstone,” says Tim, a jewelry designer. “The combination of flavors helps me experiment and widen my experience. It’s akin to designing--the more you know, the more you have to inspire.”
As our soufflés come out of the oven, tall and airy, we pour in a rich crème anglaise, grab spoons, and dig in. Good cheer and bonding over an extraordinary meal leads me to conclude not only would I have my classmates over for dinner, I’d even let them cook.