Zen in the Kitchen

Cooking and entertaining is Paul Andrews’s recipe for relaxation.

The executive director of Wayfinder Schools, Paul Andrews spends his weekdays in the active and lively company of teenagers, educators, and others involved in the alternative high school’s programs. At home, he cooks to relax, shedding any pressures of his day at the cutting board and stove. An avid recipe collector who named his dog after Ina Garten, cookbook author and host of the Food Network show Barefoot Contessa, Andrews entertains often, and thinks nothing of trying out a newly discovered recipe on his guests. “Cooking can be stressful, but it’s a creative kind of stress,” he says.

Andrews is far from alone in turning to the kitchen to recharge. A quick Internet search turns up dozens of articles on the therapeutic benefits of preparing food. “Cooking is meditation with the promise of a good meal afterwards,” writes Linda Wasmer Andrews (no relation) in Psychology Today. Taking the time to cook for yourself is both nourishing and nurturing, while cooking for others is an altruistic act that strengthens relationships. And if, like Andrews, you enjoy a challenge, mastering a complex recipe or new technique can give you a sense of accomplishment. “I don’t really have a signature dish—I try new things all the time,” he says.

Photographer Ted Axelrod and I are invited to join Andrews and his good friends— Chris Kast, brand strategist at The Brand Co., and Wayfinder Schools administrator Byron Bartlett—for dinner at Andrews’s Munjoy Heights condo in Portland. In the main living space on the second floor, the open kitchen, outfitted with sleek gray cabinetry and a Wolf range, allows Andrews to interact with guests while he’s cooking. A few steps away, a pantry with an undercounter wine fridge and open shelving provides additional storage. Designed by Portland interior designer James Light, it takes the place of an elevator shaft that was an option in the four-story condo.

Andrews has set the kitchen island for the casual dinner; at each place is a piece of origami paper and instructions from a book he purchased at the Portland Museum of Art. “I like to give my guests something fun to do,” he says. A round glass dining table holds an ice bucket with Champagne and a favorite appetizer, baked feta cheese with marinara sauce, to be spread on toasted bread. Andrews has recently served the same dish at a party that included Kast and Bartlett, and although he doesn’t often repeat recipes, this one is keeper. A methodical and organized entertainer; Andrews keeps a record of what he has served to whom, and even tracks guests’ food allergies and dislikes. I taste the feta and understand why it is a favorite; the slightly spicy, basil-flecked tomato sauce and warm, salty cheese are an inspired combination.

Andrews returned to Maine three years ago following his retirement from a career in financial services that took him to Seattle, Washington, and Springfield, Illinois. Born in Skowhegan, he grew up in Poland and began experimenting in the kitchen when he was young. “I was brought up on traditional Maine fare like red hot dogs and baked beans,” he says. The first dish he ever made was stuffed green peppers, which were unusual because they contained rice, and “we never had rice in our house.” Through her cookbooks, Martha Stewart was an early mentor; now it’s Garten, who Andrews hopes to meet one day. He’s become so familiar with the two women’s cooking styles that he will “sometimes take things from each of their recipes and combine them,” he says.

Our first course is a recipe from the New York Times Magazine’s Eat section, just one of the publications Andrews regularly peruses for inspiration. Lucali Salad is served at the restaurant of the same name in Brooklyn, New York, and one forkful brings me back to the old- school Italian places in northern New Jersey, where I used to live. To make it, Andrews has marinated tomato wedges, celery, red onion and black olives, a mixture he now layers with crisp iceberg lettuce and drizzles with a red wine and olive oil vinaigrette. It’s decidedly un-fancy, and completely sublime. Next is a main dish that makes us all look forward to the coming summer: Scallops with warm corn salad from Cravings by model-turned-cookbook-author Chrissy Teigen. As we sip sauvignon blanc, Andrews pats the scallops dry with paper towels so they will brown nicely, seasoning them right before placing them into a hot cast-iron skillet. He serves them on top of the corn salad, made with fresh corn in season and today with canned corn, diced sweet red peppers, and scallions. It’s a simple dish, yet full of flavor. “One of the things I’ve learned as I’ve matured in my cooking is that you don’t have to do something with 15 steps,” says Andrews. In fact, a less-experienced home cook could easily replicate everything he’s prepared today. This includes the luscious chocolate mousse for dessert, made with dark chocolate melted in hot milk, Greek yogurt, and Grand Marnier. Before serving, Andrews dollops a spoonful of orange marmalade on top of each bowl—the result is a decadent treat without the traditional richness, and with the brightness of orange.

Turning to watch the sunset over Back Cove, we take our final bites of the mousse and discuss plans for the summer, while Ina—a Hungarian herding dog called a Pumi—settles nearby. Andrews is looking forward to the return of Portland’s outdoor farmers’ market, and doing lots of entertaining on his roof deck. He’s also renting a waterfront cottage in Cushing, where he’ll spend a couple of weeks reading and trying new recipes in a kitchen with a view of the pine woods and ocean. “I want to take advantage of all the fresh seafood that will be so close by,” he says. He’s expecting friends to join him for long evenings on the cottage’s deck overlooking a quiet section of Muscongus Bay. “This is going to be the most Maine summer ever,” says Andrews. To me, it sounds like the most delicious therapy of all.

Baked Feta with Marinara and Basil
1 ½ cups good-quality jarred or homemade marinara sauce
3 jarred piquillo peppers, drained
8 ounces feta, in a single block
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Basil leaves for garnish
Crostini for serving

• Preheat oven to 350.
• In a food processor or blender, puree the marinara
sauce with the peppers.
• Pour into an ovenproof dish and place feta on top
• Bake for about 20 minutes or until cheese is lightly
charred on top and sauce is hot and bubbling.
• Sprinkle with red pepper flakes and top with basil
leaves before serving with crostini.

Adapted from Everyday Food