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Well this was a first for me. I’ve never cooked corned beef – in fact I don’t think I’ve even purchased the already cooked version in the deli. But I didn’t shy away from corned beef, and in fact, made it two ways! It’s all in the name of science!
So lets start at the beginning- as I’m sure you noticed by the gaudy green-on-green bejewelled sweater that someone was wearing on the bus, it’s St. Patrick’s Day. And for reasons lost in the mists of time, or at least in the mass exodus of irishmen from potato blight, economic hardship and political upheaval, corned beef boiled with root vegetables has become *the* dish that irish americans make to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. All sources seem to say that this is not a popular dish in Ireland. One commentator suggests that corned beef and cabbage became the designated dish of St. Patrick’s Day because “any idiot can make it when their deep in their cups”… which seemed like good logic to me.
Corned beef and cabbage is a very simple dish. A brisket cut of beef is salt and spice cured (i.e. the “corns” are the grains of salt) and then slow simmered with cabbage, onions, carrots and sometime potatoes in a big pot. Chuck in all the ingredients, cook for 3+ hours. It’s a classic winter-root vegetable-no fresh meat kind of meal.
I decided from the beginning of this project to go for authenticity–which in this case meant restraining myself from trying to “improve” the recipe with whatever techniques or ingredients I thought would bring out the *yum* in the food. Thus I did not add garlic or other seasonings to the meat. I didn’t rub the meat in 5 secret spices, I didn’t slip a bayleaf into the pot. This was very very hard for me. As I have said before, I don’t follow directions well!
As my guide to the authentic irish corned beef and cabbage, I selected this menu from Epicurious – and I made the whole thing, just as described: Corned beef and cabbage, more sautéed buttered cabbage, Champ (i.e milky mashed potatoes with scallions), and a lovely rhubarb bread pudding for desert. If the irish chef said this was the way it should be, that’s how it was going down in my kitchen tonight.
There was a bump in the road to authenticity however! The only raw corned beef I could find in Victoria on short notice was sold in plastic bags, about 1kg to the bag (I had originally intended to by one 2kg brisket). When I got the bags home, I read the fine print and it said “For best results, cook *in* the bag”. Erm… cook, food, in plastic? This whole idea didn’t seem right to me. How was the meat supposed to absorb the taste of the veggies? Isn’t it bad to eat out of hot plastic? In the end, I decided to indulge my inner scientist an conduct and experiment –cook one brisket in the plastic bag, and cook the other the old fashioned way. Both were put in my two biggest pots, covered with cold water, and slow cooked for 3 hours.
… and the winner is?
Well, it depends on how you like your corned beef. Both were good, in fact yummy, but not quite excellent. The bagged beef was more tender – in fact almost spongy in texture. I wouldn’t be surprised if I could have shredded it with a fork. The free-range brisket had picked up more flavours, swimming around in the pot with the (now very very cooked!) root veggies, bouquet garnie, and hot mustard. It was noticeably smaller and the beef fibres were tighter, leading to a less tender result – though by no means was it tough. The root veg were also surprisingly delicious – the cabbage was soft but not mushy, huge chunks of carrots were flavourful, and most surprising to me the whole onions had become very sweet.
I’m happy to report that the rest of the irish feast also was delicious. I found an organic savoy cabbage [the size of my head(!!)] and sautéed it in a little butter, salt and pepper to rave reviews. I didn’t have any shallots, but infused the milk for the champ with chives straight from my garden. Both dishes could likely be accurately reviewed with two words: “mmmmm… butter”.
We drank some Guinness (of course!), told a few tall tales, and listened to Great Big Sea and Spirit of the West to make the evening a complete celtic celebration. Sláinte!
New England Clam Chowder
Q: How do you make award-winning clam chowder?
A: First, you click your ruby slippers together three times and say to yourself, “I’m from New England, not Manhattan.” If you can’t get past that, there’s no point in continuing.
Eva: Do you like clam chowder? I need to make it for the blog.
Andrea: I like it. I think Brad would like it if you made it. We’re in.
Eva: Just so you’re forewarned: I’m making the New England clam chowder, not the Manhattan.
Andrea: What’s the difference?
Eva: New England clam chowder is the white kind. It’s creamy.
Andrea: There’s another kind?
Eva: Yes, with tomatoes. No cream.
Andrea: Huh, I’ve never heard of that.
Eva: Manhattan is healthier.
Andrea: Whatever. It’s like chocolate. What’s wrong with you?
Eva: You know I’m blogging about this conversation verbatim, don’t you?
I generally prefer Manhattan clam chowder to New England, but only because New England is less friendly to my tendency to curviness (or is it more friendly? whatever). Renegade that I am, I make my Manhattan clam chowder with a little saffron in the broth.
But let’s be real. In my heart of hearts, I prefer the comforting and creamy NE version. Nary a tomato in sight (although – barbaric! – I’ve been known to chop up a fresh tomato or two and throw them in at the last minute). There was even an attempt in 1939 to make adding tomatoes to clam chowder illegal in Maine (I looked and looked for the actual wording of the proposed legislation but couldn’t find it. Anyone?).
Like many of the foods and drinks we’ve blogged about here, (Hot Toddy, anyone?), Clam chowder has a rich history that a whole bunch of people want to take credit for. There is, of course, considerable debate about what a “true” or “traditional” clam chowder is. See, however, my discussion about tradition in my Chicken Cacciatore blog. It’s my opinion (and I don’t think I’m alone), that “tradition” is whatever you’ve grown up with. And, despite the fact I’m from the prairies (nary a sea shore in sight), the clam chowder I grew up with is pretty damned good.
That said, I also believe (gasp!) that “traditions” can and should be improved upon, generation by generation (okay, and sometimes meal by meal).
Most “traditional” NE clam chowders are made with bacon. I’m going with Della on this one, though, that it’s not really the bacon it needs, just some sort of salty rich fat. Looking in my freezer for something appropriately rich, salty and fatty to flavour the soup with, my eye snagged on a Ziploc bag on which was written (in my handwriting), “duck apple”. There were two sausages in the bag. Ah ha! (Maybe I should start a new blog: “Everything’s better with Duck”?)
I’m of the opinion that the very best clam chowder is made with at least some fresh clams. So, after staying out far too late on Friday night (where some guy who told me his name was “Trane” tried to pick me up at the casino – with Jim standing two feet away and letting “Trane” buy him drinks), I got up Saturday and headed to T&T Supermarket for some clams. Sometimes T&T gets razor clams in, but there were only manila to be had (oh well, I guess I’ll just have to sacrifice).
Jim and I eventually made it out to my sister’s place, where in between “drawing” with my 15-month-old niece, I made the following:
“New England” Clam Chowder
- 3 lbs fresh clams
- 2 C dry white wine (or seafood stock or chicken stock)
- 3 Tbsp butter
- 1 duck sausage, removed from casing and broken into small pieces (or, if you must, you shameless bacon-eaters: 4 strips good bacon, diced, but then reduce the butter to 2 Tbsp)
- 1 medium onion, ½ inch dice
- 2 Tbsp flour
- 1 L whole milk
- 3 ribs celery, ½ inch dice
- 4 C new potatoes, 1 inch dice
- 2 bay leaves
- ¼ tsp dried thyme (or 1 tsp fresh, minced)
- 2 cans “baby” clams (not drained)
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and grated (I like the colour and sweetness the carrot brings. Blancmange “purists” can leave it out).
- black pepper, to taste
- salt, to taste (note: it will take a fair amount of salt due to the potatoes)
- a few drops of Tabasco or other hot sauce (optional)
- Clean the fresh clams with a scrub-brush and fresh water.
- Heat the wine in a large pot over medium-high heat until simmering. Add the clams and cover tightly for about 5 minutes until clams are open. (I’m lazy and hate shucking clams. This is the “cheater” way to do things, but what’s there to lose? You’re still collecting the clam nectar. If you have an opinion on this, I’d love to hear it).
- Place a wire strainer over a large bowl. Scoop clams and shells into wire strainer. Scoop clams from shells, discarding shells and any unopened clams. Place shelled clams into the fridge.
- Pour remaining wine/clam stock through strainer. Discard any crud in the strainer (sand, etc) and set the stock aside.
- Heat butter over medium heat in another large stock pot (or wash the one you just used, if it’s your only one). Add sausage (or bacon) and sauté until sausage (or bacon) is browned, using a spatula to break the sausage into small (½ inch or less) pieces. Add the onion and cook until softened.
- Stir in flour and cook for a few seconds. Add the reserved clam/wine stock, gradually, whisking rapidly after each addition to make sure there are no lumps. When all of the stock has been added, stir in the milk and add the celery, potatoes, bay leaf and thyme.
- Cook, uncovered (stirring frequently to prevent lumps), until thickened and potatoes are soft but still have some texture. Taste and add salt and pepper.
- Add the canned clams and their broth, and the carrot (if using). Cook for another 15 minutes or so. Taste and adjust seasonings.
- Add the reserved clams and cook until clams are warmed. Taste. If the soup is too “rich”, add a few drops of Tabasco and some pepper (hot sauce is an excellent way to cut the richness in a milk/butter soup. You won’t notice the heat from a few drops but you will find the cloying “richness” reduced).
Serve with crusty warm bread and a nice, tart white wine.
P.S. Diana’s “tradition” is to stir a whole bunch of French’s mustard into her clam chowder. She said, “don’t laugh; it gives it a great tangy flavour!” But of course, she was talking about the Campbell’s Chunky Soup version (the soup that eats like a meal!).
P.P.S. We decided that we definitely need a blog called “Eva’s photographic journey” that talks about all of my camera problems (and the ridiculously bad pictures I’ve taken for this blog). This time my camera was out of batteries so I had to borrow my sister’s. And, I still really haven’t gotten the hang of food photography. Oh, how I wish for the days of my old 35-mm SLR with film in it! * sigh *
A. adj. 1. a. Of authority, authoritative (properly as possessing original or inherent authority, but also as duly authorized); entitled to obedience or respect.
4. a. The action of transmitting or ‘handing down’, or fact of being handed down, from one to another, or from generation to generation; transmission of statements, beliefs, rules, customs, or the like, esp. by word of mouth or by practice without writing. Chiefly in phrase by tradition.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that what is “authentic” to each of us, is what we have grown accustomed to; our personal “tradition”, if you will.
According to Mario Batali in his very good cookbook, Molto Italiano,
Chicken “catchatori” seemed to be a subset for every mediocre chicken dish ever served to me at restaurants in the ‘70s and ‘80s: everything with a mushroom or an onion in it qualified for the title.
Hmm. Traditionally an Italian dish, like many others (spaghetti and meatballs, anyone?) co-opted into North American cuisine by desperate housewives in the 40s and 50s looking for anything with a new flavour.
Mom discovered chicken cacciatore when I was very young. With four kids, living in a village an hour from the city, Mom and Dad didn’t get out for dinner very often. Mom was known to very carefully savour and investigate dishes she enjoyed “out”, so she could recreate them at home (I’ve been known to “cheat” this way myself).
Mario would have definitely turned up his nose at the version Mom made. We loved it in our house, though, and rather than go “fancy” for chicken cacciatore day, I phoned Mom and asked her for her recipe. I also asked her if I could share it here.
Well, you need onions, garlic, celery, mushrooms, and green pepper. You sauté that up with some [diced] chicken, some cayenne and some chili flakes. You could use a fresh hot pepper if you want, I suppose. I like it spicy but your Dad doesn’t as much. Salt and pepper. Then you stir in some tomato sauce, some tomato paste, some paprika. Did I say salt and pepper? You need some broad noodles. Then you layer noodles, chicken, mozzarella in a pan twice, and bake at 350° for 25-30 minutes. Let it sit for 10 minutes. I serve mine with salad and garlic bread.
This is the chicken cacciatore I grew up eating. It is, in my opinion, the most authentic. It is comfort food, to be eaten on a cold, rainy day, with family. I serve mine with a salad, some garlic bread, and a good, strong wine.
This is my tradition.
P.S. Apologies: due to unforeseen circumstances (I drank too much wine on Thanksgiving and left my camera at a friend’s place), I have no picture of Mom’s chicken cacciatore to share with you. But I can tell you it looks absolutely nothing like this.