Cooking in a Townhouse: The Last Steak

My smoke detector talks. When it goes off for more than a few seconds, it tells you to get out — oddly like a line from The Amityville Horror that I quoted not long before hearing the smoke detector for the first time. The eerie male voice — the one in my smoke detector — orders you to leave because “there is smoke in the hall.”

I discovered this on a fall evening, as I cooked dinner. A thick steak bought at a recent farmers market was broiling in the oven. As the fat rendered under the heavy heat of the coil, it smoked — as it is wont to do. There was no fire. No danger. Just fat cooking.

Still, I looked up to see the tendrils of that smoke curling near the ceiling. I opened windows, but not enough of them — or perhaps not soon enough. Perhaps turning on my stove hood fan would have helped too, but I didn’t think of that. As they say, smoke rises … and so it did until my smoke detector sounded in alarm.

TheLastSteak

That steak — a $20 impulse purchase (can a hunk of meat that’s $20 be an impulse?) — is something I would have cooked on a grill in days past. But when we moved from Connecticut to Maine, the grill didn’t come with me. My landlord wouldn’t allow it, unless I moved the heavy, unwieldy gas-powered cooking device down the porch stairs and into the yard every time I wanted to use it. That didn’t sound practical, so I declined.

But this one evening I wanted to serve steak for dinner, and had to do so within the parameters of what’s possible here in our Maine home. I’ve broiled steaks before –they can be cooked nicely that way when a grill isn’t available. But apparently our little new home isn’t as forgiving with the natural smoke from rendering fat.

In the end, after opening pretty much every window in the house and frantically fanning pillows in the hall to chase the smoke away, the alarm finally silenced. But not before my neighbor came home, and undoubtedly heard the loud alarm. Thankfully, she is quite easy going.

With the cessation of sound, also went any hope of ever cooking a steak in our house again. It was too loud, too inconvenient, too much for a meal. Fortunately, we don’t each much red meat anyway.

Moving six hours north from the Connecticut town where my kids had lived their whole young lives brought so much change. There were obviously things — like learning to deal with a much colder, snowier winter — and less obvious ones — like acclimating to completely different curriculums that continue to surprise us. We also downsized. Some furniture was put in storage. My massive book collection was pared back. Years of accumulation was gone through, sorted and saved or donated.

Also in the less obvious changes category is my expectations for cooking at home. Back in Connecticut, when we lived in a house instead of a townhouse, the space, he airflow and even the cooking equipment, including the double oven stove that prepared a decade’s worth of meals for Thanksgiving and Easter, was different. The possibilities seemed endless. I could bake, broil, boil, fry, slow cook, braise and sear to my heart’s content. If I wanted to bake a casserole and roast veggies, my dual ovens let me do both at once. And cleanup? Let’s not even talk about how much easier it was with a glass-top stove and a dishwasher.

But things change. And so must my cooking — not just because my townhouse isn’t really my own but because there are different ingredients here, and I have to adapt. So I have.

Although ground beef does still get browned for homemade tacos or bolognese sauce, and rolled into tender meatballs, beef in general only appears once or twice a month now. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Instead, we eat more chicken and fish, more shrimp and more meatless dinners.

Though it has proven challenging to find kale that’s not curly here in Bangor, I’ve discovered that baby kale can take the place of the Tuscan kale that was so plentifully available back in Connecticut. Instead of hand-pulled fresh mozzarella, something I still crave, I make due with store-bought versions which lack the creamy freshness that can only be achieved in a ball of cheese so perishable it must be consumed in a matter of days.

These are, of course, first-world problems. And ones that I know in the grand-scheme aren’t really that important at all.

Instead, I take joy in the wide variety of other Maine-made cheeses, and enjoy the longer, later tomato season with glee. I sample Maine beers, finding some I love (Allagash White!) and others that I hope never to sip again. As Chaddah recently said, local doesn’t always mean good. There is so much to love here, if I only allow myself to try.

So I am open to every taste that Maine has to offer. My kids and I try as many restaurants as we can, and go to the farmers market whenever possible. We sample cheeses every Monday (we call it Cheesy Mondays), and take time in the supermarket to see what’s available — instead of focusing on what’s not.

(Don’t worry, this is just about food, but we are also trying plenty of new experiences too — from ice skating lessons for the kids to hikes whenever possible.)

To borrow a sentiment from The Wizard of Oz, one of my favorite movies of all time, we aren’t in Connecticut anymore. But that’s okay, because Maine is a place with its own wonderful, unique food culture and I couldn’t be more excited every time we discover something more to love.

Sarah Walker Caron

About Sarah Walker Caron

Sarah Walker Caron is senior features editor for the Bangor Daily News, and resident cook. She writes a cooking column, Maine Course, and is also author of "Grains as Mains: Modern Recipes Using Ancient Grains." Her recipes have appeared in the BDN, Betty Crocker publications, Glamour.com and more.