New England cookery combines the older English methods of steaming and boiling with ingredients familiar to Native Americans, like corn, game, shellfish, potatoes, cranberries, maple syrup, and cornmeal. New England has meager and rocky soil but it has a bounty of fish — especially cod — and shellfish, including clams, oysters, and lobster. Boston baked beans, which became a Saturday supper staple because of the Puritans' Sabbath rules, cranberry dishes of all kinds, and maple syrup and candy have all found a place in the American palate through New England.
The New England clambake is both a meal and an outdoor construction project. The work begins with cooks assembling the ingredients (lobsters, whole fish, ears of corn, clams, mussels, red bliss potatoes, and onions) and cooking gear (firewood, charcoal, stones, seaweed, tarps, and shovels). The crew begins by digging a hole – preferably on the beach -- and lining it with stones, wood, and charcoal. Essentially, they are creating a below-ground bonfire and heating the rocks to create a steam bath for the food. When the wood has burned down to ash, saturated seaweed is laid over the hot rocks, creating a pit of steam. Small packets of seafood, corn, and potatoes wrapped in wet cheesecloth are laid on top of the seaweed. The food packets are covered with more seaweed, and the whole pit is covered with a tarp for up to about two hours. At the end of the cooking time, the food is unearthed and served with lots of drawn butter and compliments for the cooks.
Clam chowder has many varieties, and each has its loyal following. One three-way division of clam chowders is New England clam chowder, with a creamy broth; Rhode Island clam chowder, with a clear broth; and Manhattan clam chowder, with a tomato-based broth. The chowders made by early settlers used salt pork and biscuits. Today chowder cooks discard the biscuits, but often sprinkle crackers on top of the chowder. Clams, hard or soft, are the basis of the most common chowders, but other types of fish are often used, depending on the season and the catch. According to "50 Chowders" by Jasper White, the oldest known fish chowder recipe in print appeared in the Boston Evening Post on September 23, 1751.
Shiny, scarlet cranberries have a bigger job than just looking beautiful on the Thanksgiving dinner table. They grow wild but also are extensively cultivated in huge, sandy bogs, mostly in Massachusetts. The peak period to buy and use fresh cranberries is October through December. Apart from cranberry sauce, this fruit makes delicious chutneys, pies, and cobblers. Because they are sour, cranberries are best combined with other fruits, such as apples or dried apricots.
The maple forests of northern New England do more than cover the hills with blankets of gold every fall. In later winter – February to March — the combination of freezing nights and warmer days causes sap in the maple trees to begin to move. The Indians collected sap by making slashes in the tree trunks. Early European settlers in New England at first copied the Indians' sap-collection methods, but by 1800 they began harvesting the sap by drilling a small hole in the tree and inserting a tube made from a hollowed twig. In the early years, maple sap was boiled down and made into maple sugar, not syrup, because it was easier to store the dried and hardened sugar. Early makers of maple products boiled sap in iron kettles hanging over an open fire. This process evaporated water out of the sap, leaving the essential syrup. When it was thickened, the syrup was stirred until it began to crystallize, and then poured into molds. Today, during March and April, hundreds of sugar houses all over New England welcome visitors to watch the process and taste the fruits of the maple tree.
The short definition of Boston baked beans is dried navy beans baked slowly with molasses and salt pork. The early colonists learned to cook dried beans from the American Indians, who would dig pits in the earth and slow-cook beans with maple sugar and bear fat. This dish evolved into baked beans with salt pork and molasses. It was traditionally served on Saturday nights in Colonial times. The Puritan Sabbath — when no cooking could be done — ran from sundown Saturday to sundown on Sunday. Puritan wives baked beans in brick ovens on Saturday for that night's supper. The leftovers were still warm when the family returned from church Sunday morning.
The New England boiled dinner, with roots in Ireland, is a one-pot meal native to New England that contains various ingredients, but primarily corned beef, cabbage, carrots, turnips, and potatoes. These ingredients, along with seasonings, are added at various times during cooking and slowly simmered together to create a hearty one-pot meal. Common condiments include horse radish, mustard, and vinegar. The dish is representative of the cultural heritage of the region, notably that of the Irish.
Apple growing has found a fertile home in rocky soils, long, hot summers, and crisp fall days of New England. The New England apple industry is still largely family-owned and orchards are an important community resource. Many growers offer pick-your-own sales and farm stands that sell homemade apple butter, applesauce, pies, and other treats. Among the other treats is apple cider -- fermented ("hard") or non-fermented. Until the mid-1800s, hard cider was the most popular beverage in North America because apples were plentiful; it was cheap to make; and, unlike milk, it would not go bad. All the colonists, young and old, drank hard cider at all types of family and church occasions.
Cape Cod, the sand-scoured curl of land extending from Massachusetts into the Atlantic, didn't get its name for nothing. Cod is New England's fish, a white, lean, firm and mild-tasting meat. Cod and scrod (the name for young cod and haddock) can be baked, broiled, poached and fried. Whole fish, which can range in weight from one-and-a-half to 100 pounds, can be stuffed. Cod cheeks and tongues are a local delicacy.
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