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Susan Axelrod

Susan Axelrod's food writing career began in the kitchen; she owned a restaurant and catering business for 15 years before turning to journalism. By day, she is the social media editor for Portland Press Herald. To relax, she bakes, gardens and hikes with her husband and their two dogs, preferably followed by a cocktail or a Maine beer. Susan can be contacted at 791-6310 or saxelrod@mainetoday.com On Twitter: @susansaxelrod

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Posted: September 2, 2013

In Annie Mahle’s galley: Cooking and sailing aboard the J.&E. Riggin

Written by: Susan Axelrod

 All photos/Susan Axelrod

Most of Rockland Harbor was obscured by dense fog as I pulled into a parking space at Windjammer Wharf and found the J.&E. Riggin among the five schooners docked there. It was 6:30 a.m. and a few early risers were up and about, sipping coffee and expressing hope that the day’s weather would improve. Down in the Riggin’s cozy galley, Annie Mahle greeted me with a hug and a coffee mug, which I eagerly filled on deck before returning to the warmth below.

I had been invited to spend a day on the J.& E. Riggin, owned by Annie and her husband, John Finger, since 1997 — six years after the vessel, built in 1925 for oystering on Delaware Bay, was declared a National Historic Landmark. The rest of the passengers had arrived the night before for a four-day cruise. They were a diverse group, choosing to go on the trip for a variety of reasons. Chief among them: Annie’s reputation as a stellar chef. It’s not just that she cooks under sail in a small space, it’s that she does it so beautifully, without modern equipment and conveniences.

Annie’s cooking has been featured on TV and in national magazines. She has written two cookbooks — the most recent, “Sugar & Salt, a Year at Home and at Sea,” was published in 2012. She writes a twice-monthly column, The Maine Ingredient, for the Portland Press Herald and maintains a blog, At Home & At Sea, which reflects the dual life she shares with John and their daughters, Chloe and Ella. From Memorial Day weekend through early October, they live aboard the J. & E. Riggin; the rest of the year, home is a farmhouse just a couple of miles from the wharf in Rockland.

On this cool, foggy morning, Chloe and mess cook Cass Choplich prep vegetables for lunch while Ella fetches kindling for the galley’s wood-burning stove and Annie stirs the batter for blueberry-raspberry pancakes. Wearing a vintage apron, she jokes easily with the girls, answering questions and soliciting their input on the day’s menu. “I could do a zucchini cake for dessert tonight with cream cheese frosting,” she suggests, and they eagerly agree. She moves easily between the stove and the counter just inches away, combining peaches given to her by a guest with sugar and vodka to make what will in six weeks time become peach cordial.

Topside, guests help themselves to the pancakes, with Maine maple syrup, of course, and a platter of fresh fruit. Joining them, Annie issues some basic instructions for the trip: they will keep one mug for the duration and wash their own dishes at a station set up on deck. A few more details dispensed with, she has a special offer before sailing —would anyone like to accompany her to help stock produce for the voyage?

Minutes later, a small group of us are marveling at the family’s 4,000 square-foot, organic garden, which Annie says provides 40 percent of the vegetables and fruit she uses on the boat. Another 40 percent come from a local CSA and the remaining items, such as melons and citrus fruit, are purchased at the supermarket. The girls pick herbs —chives, pineapple sage, rosemary, oregano and borage —while Annie digs horseradish root. Another section of the garden offers broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, beans, kale, yellow squash and elderberries, which are boxed up and transported back to the boat.

In addition to the wood-fired stove, the 89-foot, two masted J.&E. Riggin has no inboard engine, limited electrical power and no refrigeration. Two large coolers on deck hold ice and items that must be kept cold. Annie uses herbs, spices, vinegars and other condiments, the majority of which she prepares herself, to add layers of flavor to local, seasonal main ingredients. The chef from a neighboring schooner, the Nathaniel Bowditch, ducks into the galley with a jar of pickled black walnuts; Annie will reciprocate with the peach cordial, peach chutney or peachy-ginger jam.

“You make this thing and it’s delicious by itself, but then you combine it with something else and it’s different,” she explains. “I’ll take these pickled black walnuts and maybe use the vinegar in a salad dressing and it will be wonderful — the work already happened.”

To get the J.&E. Riggin underway, Annie, who is also a licensed captain, takes a break from the galley to steer the yawl boat, which pushes the schooner away from the wharf and out into the harbor. All hands are on deck to raise the sails but there is barely a breeze, so the canvas flaps lightly while the yawl boat, lashed to the stern, chugs away through the fog. John is at the helm and Ella keeps watch on the bow while Annie, Chloe and Cass go below to work on lunch.

Out in Penobscot Bay, the fog clears and the Camden Hills come into view off the starboard side. The water is so flat calm it appears we are sailing — albeit just barely — on a lake. The crew starts to talk about the lobster bake planned for that night on an uninhabited island; the crate of lobsters on the deck is regularly sloshed with a bucket of seawater. Guests have started to relax and get into cruising mode.

Under a blue sky, we dig into the buffet lunch —Asian lettuce wraps. Amidst the morning’s activities, Annie and her helpers have prepared a feast: curried quinoa with kale and onions, spicy ground beef, basmati rice, a salad of cucumber and watermelon rind, gingered radishes and various other accompaniments to be piled on a plate or wrapped in leaves of romaine lettuce. Dessert is “Jammin’ Bars” — a rich shortbread crust topped with raspberry jam, chocolate chips and nuts. Despite the pancake breakfast, I’m somehow ravenous.

Much too suddenly it seems, it’s mid-afternoon and time for me to depart. I step down into the yawl boat — the wind has come up and the schooner is under full sail power, now —and Annie ferries me into Lincolnville Beach, where I will catch a cab back to my car in Rockland. As we exchange hugs and promises to meet again soon, I know I have not only been well fed, my soul has been nourished, too.

Annie Mahle’s Jammin’ Bars

3 sticks unsalted butter, softened

1 1/4 cups sugar

Pinch of salt

1 egg

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cup homemade raspberry peach jam (good quality store-bought jam may be substituted)

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1/2 cup slivered almonds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line a 9×13 pan with parchment paper.  In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together and then add the egg.  Mix until well incorporated.  Add the flour and mix using your fingers until the dough is a coarse crumble.  Transfer 2/3 of the dough to the pan and press flat with your fingers.  Spread the jam evenly over the dough and then sprinkle the remaining dough over top of the jam.  Layer with the chocolate chips and then almonds.  Bake for 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown.  Cool in the pan and lift out before cutting.

Makes 24 squares

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