FALMOUTH, Maine — Craving Chinese food? Don’t reach for the takeout menu.
Instead hit the farmers market, whip up a savory meal and crack out the chopsticks at home. That’s among what students are learning to do via a series of cooking classes being offered.
Last weekend, home cook Sheri Fistal demonstrated how to make international cuisine local at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Cumberland County campus.
“I’ve been making wontons for ages. It’s something you can do fast, and a lot of the ingredients are easily accessible,” the instructor told a small group gathered around the kitchen classroom.
As the tantalizing smells of Asia filled the Cooperative Extension’s Falmouth kitchen, Fistal led a crash course on lobster and crab wonton soup featuring vegetables and other ingredients easily procured in Maine. The do-it-yourself Asian feast is part of the school’s “From Scratch: Your Maine Kitchen” series in its second season.
The classes, which include a recent one on Savory Harvest Pies and next month’s Cooking with Maine Beer, embrace the locavore ethos of connecting consumers with land and sea.
“They are geared toward helping people understand the importance of using local food in their own home kitchen,” extension educator Kathy Savoie said. “We have seen restaurants do a great job of using local foods. This is helping to make the home kitchen feature local foods as well.”
As Fistal proved, farm to table isn’t just for top chefs.
Within two hours the spunky Falmouth resident debunked the myths of Asian raviolis, proving that any amateur can master the techniques and turned the delicate soup regional with fresh lobster and crab from a Portland fish market. Tucked into succulent pillows with snow peas and the essence of fresh ginger, Maine’s famous crustacean was reborn.
“People are growing bok choy and napa and snow peas and shallots and onions. I don’t know if it’s psychological or not, but it just does seem to taste better when you pull it in from the garden,” Fistal, a master gardener who shops farmers markets to augment recipes this time of year, said. “There is nothing better than going out to your garden as you are preparing your food and clipping your herbs.”
Cooperative extensions are about research and education. These hands-on demos, some attracting as many as 40 people, indicate that home economics is more central to a good life than ever.
“With the local foods movement, more people want to know what’s in the food they are using,” Andrea Herr, the school’s office manager, said. “We try to stay away from anything that has lots of ingredients that you can’t pronounce. The idea is to show people you can make this yourself. It’s fun to get people together with new ingredients.”
And the more Mainers cook local at home, the healthier the state’s agri-economy becomes.
Citing the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Savoie said the average annual expenditure on food in Maine in 2014 was $6,759: $3,971 at home and $2,787 away from home. Savoie estimates there is the potential upside for $2.9 billion to be spent on local sustenance annually.
Informing consumers of a panoply of fresh, local and tasty meals they can prepare at home is one way to move the dial.
“If we can start to shift a higher percentage of that toward locally produced and processed foods, it will make a significant difference in supporting our own local food economy,” Savoie said.
Informed consumers are the best consumers.
And those exiting Saturday’s class left with full bellies, recipes and a list of Asian markets to find ingredients to try this at home. The demo appealed to Elizabeth Patten, a nutritionist from Freeport.
“I am glad we are participating,” the locavore said. “Asian food is clean.”
Adapting Maine lobster to the Chinese staple opens doors to more than boiled and baked-stuffed dishes.
“There is so much you can do with lobster,” Fistal said. And wontons. Many restaurants feature pork or chicken wonton soup, but vegetarians can “put in anything green,” Fistal said.
“Cooking With Maine Beer” is from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, March 19, and costs $40. To register, call 781-6099 or visit umaine.edu/cumberland/programs/from-scratch-your-maine-kitchen.
Asian Lobster And Crab Wonton Filling
Adapted from Sheri Fistal
Yields 80 wontons
8 ounces lobster meat
8 ounces crab meat
⅓ cup onion, finely diced
⅓ cup celery, finely diced
⅓ cup carrot, finely diced
1 cup Napa cabbage, finely diced
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional
80 wonton wrappers
Combine all ingredients — except wrappers — in a bowl and stir together.
Place a rounded teaspoon in the center of a wonton wrapper.
Moisten all sides with a mixture of cornstarch and water.
Fold like a triangle, making sure no mixture is on the outside of the wonton.
Bring the two largest sides of the triangle together — it should look like the “Flying Nuns” habit.
Add to boiling wonton soup (recipe below) and cook for 3 to 4 minutes.
Wonton Soup Stock
Yields about 8 cups
3 pounds chicken pieces (backs, necks or wings)
10 cups cold water
3 slices fresh ginger
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
Salt to taste
Black pepper, to taste, optional
Rinse the chicken pieces under cold running water. Place in large pot with 10 cups of water or enough to cover.
Add the ginger, green onion, rice wine or sherry. Bring to a boil over medium heat, occasionally skimming off the foam that rises to the top.
Add salt to taste and black pepper if desired.
Cover, reduce the heat and simmer for 2 hours. Strain the broth and use as called for in recipes.