Sunday, September 11, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: Massachusetts I - ANUTHAH Chowdah!

By the time you read this post, written a few weeks ago (ah, the magic of pre-scheduled auto-publishing), I will in fact be in the state you are now reading about, in Provincetown for the wedding of my friends Eric and Alan (shout out, guys - I know you are reading this).  This wasn't timed this way; it was mere coincidence.  So in a way, these posts have been a culinary primer for my first actual, on-purpose trip to New England (not counting that eight hour layover a few years ago on a flight from Baltimore through Boston and Reykjavik to Amsterdam).  As for the Provincetown excursion: you'll read about that wicked trip sometime in the next few weeks.

Official Name: Commonwealth of Massachusetts
State Nicknames: The Bay State
Admission to the US: February 6, 1788 (#6)
Boston (largest city)
Other Important Cities: Worcester (2nd largest); Springfield (3rd largest); Cambridge (5th largest)
New England, Northeast; New England (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Clambake; Maple Syrup
Bordered by:
Vermont, New Hampshire (north); New York (west); Connecticut, Rhode Island (south); Atlantic Ocean (south and east)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: cranberry juice (beverage); cod (fish); wild turkey (game bird); baked navy bean (bean); cranberry (berry); Boston cream pie (dessert); chocolate chip cookie (cookie); Boston cream donut (donut)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: New England foods, in particular Boston-specific foods such as: Boston cream pie, Boston baked beans, Boston brown bread; "New England" clam chowder; Irish, Italian and Portuguese ethnic dishes; codfish cakes, lobster rolls and other New England seafood dishes; cranberries and blueberries

Every time I come back to New England cuisine, I am reminded of something that famous TV chef Paula Deen (not a New Englander) said about Southern food: to paraphrase, she had never heard of anyone saying anything about Northern cookin', so she wasn't sure it was any good, unlike Southern cookin'.  I'm sure she meant no offense.  Still, after getting through half of the New England states, I can guess that Miss Paula is probably quite wrong about Northern cookin', because those New Englanders are very much in love with their cuisine.  Once again, I come back to Brooke Dojny, former Nutmeg Stater-turned-Mainer who seems to be the authority on Yankee cuisine.  From her book The New England Cookbook (also mostly available on Google Books), Dojny describes the historical importance of New England food, perhaps the oldest US regional cuisine (in place by the mid-1600's):

By the dawn of the eighteenth century, a new and distinct regional cuisine had taken root, with dishes that we continue to cook today.,  Chowders, fish cakes, baked beans, succotash, cornbread, boiled dinner, roast turkey and cranberry sauce, pumpkin and berry pies - these traditional dishes form the central core of New England home cooking, linking past with present in an unbroken chain. [Dojny 1999: xiv]
Among the New England states, Massachusetts is the largest in terms of population and influence, not to mention the first settled.  And while the Bay State may not be the be all and end all of New England food, it certainly has given those of us in the other 44 states plus the District the quintessential portrait of what we think of as "New England food": Boston baked beans, Boston brown bread, Boston cream pie (notice a trend here?). And it's not just Boston.  Take, again, Provincetown, at the tip of the tip of Cape Cod.  You can find all of New England's iconic foods here (albeit at much higher prices than most of New England): lobster, clams, oysters, cod, even crabs.  And do not forget that Provincetown, Boston, and all of Massachusetts has gained much from its immigrant communities, especially the Portuguese, Irish and Italians.

Even that most classic of New England clam chowders, in a region of many varied clam chowders, actually is from, again, Boston: the creamy, white and very opaque (sorry, Connecticut and Rhode Island) clam chowder full of clams and potatoes, but not too buttery or creamy (you too, Maine) and definitely not clear and tomato-ey (excuse you, New York - you people aren't even New Englanders anyway.  Then again, neither am I).  Even the famous New England boiled dinner - what I grew up calling "corned beef and cabbage" - was made popular by Irish-Americans in and around Boston.  Let's face it, Massachusetts has been the nation's conduit for proudly Yankee cuisine.

Maryland native John Shields used to live in Massachusetts before returning home.  Here I interpret his simplified recipe for "Back Bay Clam Chowder" - as he puts it "the real thing - pure, unadulterated, classic New England chowder, rich with clams, lightly enhanced with cream, and fragrant with briny broth" (Shields 2004: 18).  You can find the recipe for his Back Bay Clam Chowder on the same page of his cookbook Coastal Cooking with John Shields (2004).

The Recipe: Back Bay (New England) Clam Chowder

I say "simplified" because Shields takes the traditional recipe - hand-shucked clams in a broth thickened by crushed oyster crackers and water - and simplifies it with pre-shucked clams packaged in their juices, and a roux of flour and salt pork grease.  I further simplified it by using bacon grease instead.  Yes, I should have used salt pork, but I had the bacon on hand, saving me the extra expense.

You will need:

* clams, with juice (about $6 for a container of chopped clams in juice right from Cape Cod, at Whole Foods)
* bacon (instead of salt pork - again, remember the authentic ones usually use salt pork, though I did see recipes that use bacon)
* flour (to make that roux with the bacon grease - again, real Englanders crush oyster crackers to thicken the soup)
* potatoes and an onion (here, a leftover Vidalia - again, not a New England onion)
* milk (had it)

* salt and pepper
* fresh parsley (from my garden)
* Though Shields' recipe does not mention it, I added a few tablespoons of butter

A lot of these procedures were the same as that Southern Connecticut clam chowder, with the addition of much milk.

Render the bacon fat until the bacon is crispy, and discard the bacon (or in my case, eat it with a nice omelette while you're making New England clam chowder).

Fry up the chopped onion in the bacon grease until soft...

...and then add the flour.  Okay, so not exactly a roux.

You will then add the skinned and cubed potatoes with your clam broth, plus enough water to cover the potatoes.  Boil the potatoes until tender.

Next cook the milk in a separate saucepan and simmer until small bubbles form around the sides.

Add the milk and clams, and cook for about 15 minutes.

Stir occasionally.  I also added butter at this point.  Garnish individual servings with parsley

I was mostly satisfied with this clam chowder.  My one issue was that it was much thinner than I had expected.  Maybe I did not let the onions soften enough, or maybe I needed more flour.  Despite this, it was a hearty soup.  Mind you, it was very different than most New England clam chowders I have eaten - thinner than the Chunky Soups and Progressives, and not a can of salty milk jelly with mini bits of clam like Campbell's standard soup.  In general, I am amazed at how easy it is to make a clam chowder - that is, if you don't bother to shuck your own clams.  Maybe another time.


Dojny, Brooke.  The New England Cookbook: 350 Recipies from Town and Country, Land and Sea, Hearth and Home.  Also available in part on Google Books.  Harvard Common Press: Boston, 1999.

Gand, Gale.  "Boston Cream Pie".   Featured on the episode "Desserts from the Yankee Kitchen" of the show Sweet Dreams (Gale Gand, host).  Food Network, 2011.

Haggerty, Bridget. "Corned Beef & Cabbage - The Feeding of A Myth".  From the Irish Culture and Customs website, copyright 2001-2011.  All rights reserved.

Passos Duffy, Marcia.  "New England Boiled Dinner (Corned Beef & Cabbage)"  From The Heart of New England website, copyright 2004-2011.  All rights reserved.

Shields, John. Coastal Cooking with John Shields (the Companion Cookbook to the Public Television Series).  Broadway Books: Portland, Oregon, 2004. 

Yankee Magazine. "Annie's Corned Beef and Cabbage". From "Meat Recipes", March 2010. Copyright 2011 Yankee Magazine.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Massachusetts" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Massachusetts".


Jim said...

Hmm. Chowder. I must try this.