Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Cooking old favorites from New England

Several months after my first visit to Boston, I finally got around to doing a New England meal, with as many specifically Bostonian dishes as possible. The cuisine of the area has a lot of British and Irish influences, and also incorporates many region- and hemisphere-native ingredients like cranberries, potato and corn. Molasses are a common ingredient, thanks to Boston's past as a rum production hub (in fact, a tragic but amusing accident about a century ago saw parts of Boston literally flooded with the stuff). Seafood is huge in coastal New England cuisine, while bacon or salt pork contribute flavor to a number of dishes from around there. I had 5 guests, but these portions serve about 8.

For the soup course, I prepared a New England Fish Chowder. For this, I crackled about 100g of chopped bacon in a pot, set the bits aside, added 2 tablespoons of butter to the rendered fat, and in it sauteed 2 cups of chopped onion, thyme leaves stripped from 10 fresh sprigs, and 3 bay leaves, for about 10 minutes.

I then added 5 cups of chicken stock (better to use fish stock, if available), and 750g of diced peeled potato, then boiled for 10 minutes. In hindsight, I should have mashed some of the potato in the pot; it would have improved the thickness of the chowder. After the potatoes started getting soft, I reduced the heat and added salt and pepper. Finally, I added about a kilo of perch fillet in chunks, letting them poach for 5 minutes, then letting the pot sit away from the stove for 10 minutes. Finally, I added 1.5 cups of thick cream, stirring gently so as to not mash the fish.

I served this fresh, with the previously-prepared crackled bacon, salt crackers, and chopped parsley to garnish. Yummy, with the thyme really coming through, and the fish done just right. Even the "I don't like seafood" dude chowed down on this chowder.

To serve as a trencher for the main course, I decided to bake a Massachusetts historical specialty: Anadama Bread. To make the dough, I stirred 2 cups of hot water into half a cup of cornmeal until smooth. Once this dropped temperature to slightly warm, I stirred in half a cup of molasses, 45g of lukewarm butter, and a tablespoon of salt.

I then added half a cup of warm water that had been cultured with a small packet of dry yeast for 5 minutes, as well as 560g of flour, and combined to get a dough too loose to knead. I spooned the dough into a large buttered baking dish and let it rise until it about doubled in volume. Finally, I baked it for little under an hour at 180C.

The bread had a hard brown crust, and a sweetish taste that went great with the savory main.

The main dish of New England Boiled Dinner was pretty simple to prepare. After I simmered 1.3 kg of beef in large cuts with 15 whole peppercorns, 8 whole cloves, 3 bay leaves and 2 teaspoons of salt for about 4 hours, I just got a bunch of peeled root vegetables - 3 large carrots, 4 medium new potatoes and two medium turnips - and cut them into chunks. I removed the meat from its soup, added the vegetable chunks, and let them boil in it for about half an hour, adding chunks of a small head of cabbage before the last 20 minutes elapsed.

Finally, I added the sliced meat back on top of the vegetables, and served it hot, with horseradish sauce on the side. Simple, but hearty.

As a side dish, I made Boston Slow-Cooked Beans. It requires a bit of planning ahead. I soaked 400g of white beans from 24 hours before the lunch, in warm water. In the night before the lunch, I chopped about 200g of bacon, and prepared a sauce by mixing a half cup of molasses, a half cup of brown sugar, 3 tablespoons of Dijon mustard, and a half teaspoon of ground cloves with 3 cups of hot water. I also kept 1.5 cups of chopped onion ready.

From bottom to top in the pot, I layered half the bacon, then half the beans, then the chopped onion, then the rest of the beans, and, finally, the rest of the bacon. I poured the sauce into the pot until it covered everything.

I let this cook on low heat for about 8 hours, and let it sit for a while, before reheating to serve. It had a lovely savory-sweet taste from the combination of bacon and molasses, and the beans had become deliciously soft.

For the dessert, I did a Boston Cream Pie. This is, in fact, not a "pie" at all; rather, more of a cake sandwich. The batter for the cake layers was prepared by blending a cup of sugar with 60g of butter and an egg. 225g of flour, a pinch of salt, and 4 teaspoons of baking powder were mixed into this in small doses, alternating with splashes from a cup of milk, after which a teaspoon of vanilla extract was stirred in.

The cream/custard filling was prepared by mixing 6 tablespoons of sugar, 2.5 tablespoons of flour, an egg, a half cup of milk, and a pinch of salt, and cooking on low heat until thick. Finally, I removed the mixture from heat, stirring in a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and chilling it. While it chilled, I halved the cake batter and baked each half at 180C in a shallow pan to make the layers, and sandwiched the chilled cream/custard between them.

I frosted the top and sides of the cake with a thick layer of store-bought dark chocolate frosting (milk chocolate is normally used, but hey, dark was available).

The event was enlivened with some classic all-American Colt 45, purchased specifically with this afternoon in mind.

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