Steamed Soft-Shell Crabs

Moment of truth: this was so easy it’s not even worth writing a recipe for.  Here’s what you do:

Have the fishmonger clean your crabs (this means trimming off the apron and head).

Create one of those aluminum foil inserts for your pan (like we did for the Boston brown bread).

Pour a bottle or two of good ale into the pan, turn up the heat until it reaches a simmer.

Dredge your crabs in some Old Bay’s seasoning, place them in the simmering beer, cover and steam until they’re bright red (5-10 minutes).

Eat.

Seriously, it’s that easy.  I spent the better part of a week talking myself into making them, only to find that I should’ve spent the time stressing out over more important things. Like whether to go to the anime shop or the gaming place first (gifts for the kiddo), or if I should wear shoes or just my slippers when taking the dogs out. You know–the big questions. I’m calling this one a lesson learned.  🙂

Aren't they pretty?

Aren’t they pretty?

Welcome to Massachusetts: The Bay State

When I was a girl, my most-favorite book (oh who am I kidding, I re-read it every year) was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. For the record, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm stands firmly in second place, but more on that when we get to Maine.

I blame my ongoing fascination/love-affair/romanticism of New England, and specifically Massachusetts, on Little Women. There is something about the book’s sweeping romanticism, finely drawn and dreadfully imperfect-though-strong female characters, and New Englander determination that have always captured my fancy. I was the weirdo who, pretending to be Jo March, would walk to school reading the most delicious passages out loud. It’s probably safe to say that my love of words comes from being Jo March.

Massachusetts is also pretty significant from an historical perspective. The original Pilgrims showed up at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Shortly thereafter, the Puritans followed and founded what later became Boston. And then a lot more history happened, followed by revisionism and other things that aren’t necessarily the focus of this blog. That said, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War is an excellent introduction to Colonial American history.

Also, we can’t mention Massachusetts history without a nod to Salem Village (now Danvers) where, in 1692 20 people (5 men, 15 women) were put to death for practicing witchcraft. It’s an interesting, if a bit touristy, place to visit.

Culinarily, Massachusetts’ historical landscape is a fascinating blend of heritage and ingenious adaptation (much of which was learned from native peoples). The classic baked beans have an Old World lineage, coming as they do from a dish called “pottage”, best-defined as a slow-cooked, protein-rich dish traditionally created from legumes. To be precise, they are peasant food–economical but nutritionally satisfying.

Salt cod is another traditional Massachusetts dish. Liberal use of salt allowed colonists to preserve the fish for use in leaner times, and the practice continues to this day more out of preference than necessity. As a food, salt cod is regaining popularity–NPR recently did a piece calling it the “proscuitto of the sea“.

So then, what to make this week? Given the rich cultural history available (only a tiny bit of which I’ve mentioned here), it’s been a tough decision. After much deliberation, I’ve decided to go with two very classic dishes: New England Clam Chowder and Boston Brown Bread.

Look for those in the next couple of days because first?  I’ve got clams to shuck and a coffee can to empty.

~Brooke

Boston Brown Bread

Boston brown bread is one of those funky things that only makes sense below the surface. It comes in a can, for cryin’ out loud. Who buys bread in a can? (The hubs, that’s who.) It’s steamed, not baked (but doesn’t have the consistency of dulce de leche), and has absolutely no refined white flour or sugar. It’s also easy to make, tastes like a really good bran muffin, and historically it makes a lot of sense.

If you’ve read much Colonial/Post-Colonial/Westward Expansion/Manifest Destiny American literature (we could chat about the exploitative themes found in the Little House on The Prairie books and how re-reading them as an adult made me really really sad, but I’d rather cook), you know that flour and sugar were luxuries. Very little food was wasted, and what scraps they had were either repurposed (hash, anyone?) or used to feed chickens, pigs, goats, or other livestock and composted for the garden.

Smart, resourceful home cooks learned to create the daily bread with what was available: rye flour, corn meal, and molasses. Boston brown bread is a tasty throwback to that era that is insanely easy to make, goes well with a legume-based meal and is excellent for breakfast with a little toasting and butter. And the best part? No covered wagon required.

Boston Brown Bread

Ingredients

1 cup cornmeal

1 cup rye flower

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

1 cup currants (or raisins. Or dried cranberries)

2 cups buttermilk*

3/4 cup dark unsulphured molasses

Instructions

  • Mix everything together in a bowl (seriously. No emulsifying, no kneading, just dump it all in a bowl and stir it together)
  • Bring a kettle of water to a full boil.

And now you have a choice: if you have clean metal coffee cans (I didn’t), pour your batter into those to make a traditional presentation. Otherwise, any 2-quart vessel will do*. I used a souffle dish, and it worked just fine.

  • Grease/butter a piece of foil slightly larger than the opening of your can(s)*, or use non-stick foil (it’s a real thing) and loosely cover your can(s)*.
  • Secure foil with a rubber band or kitchen twine

Here’s the confusing part:

  • Place cans* onto a rack inside a pot large enough to 1: hold the can* and 2: fill with water to surround the can* and 3: is also tall enough to hold the can* and have the lid on.

If you don’t have such a marvelous thing, you can make a rack by folding a length of aluminum foil into a figure-8 and placing it at the bottom of your pot (remember this technique, because we’ll be using it when we steam our blue crabs next week).*  As long as your can* sits securely on top and the top of the pot goes on, you’re in luck.

  • Place can* into the pot on top of the rack or the looped foil
The can* in a pot on some foil on the stove with a lid.  It sounds much more complicated than it is.

The can* in a pot on some foil on the stove with a lid. It sounds much more complicated than it is.

By now, your kettle should be whistling away (or screeching which is what mine likes to do).

  • Carefully pour the boiling water into the pot, about 2/3 of the way up your can*. Cover with the pot lid, turn on the heat, and let your bread simmer for appx 2 hours until done.

Alternately, if this whole can/pan/pot/rack/aluminum foil thing is just too much to take in (I admit I almost crashed-and-burned over it), you can put your can* in a regular oven pan (with high sides, because we’re still going to steam it), pour the boiling water in there and cook it at 250º for a couple of hours, adding more boiling water as it steams away. The results won’t be quite as consistent or moist but it’ll still be pretty good.

Good served warm or cold

Notes

I never have buttermilk in the house, except when there’s some left over from the hubs’s famous banana bread. Usually, I just add some vinegar or lemon juice to sour the milk, and to be honest, I’m not terribly precise about it (this is why I’ll never be a pastry chef. I don’t do fiddly or precise very well, though I am eternally grateful that there are pastry chefs out there who do), so I generally eyeball about a tablespoon for 1-1 1/2 cups of milk. Let it stand for 5-10 minutes until the curdly bits rise to the top then pour the whole mess into your batter or dough.* For more precision, check out this link from The Kitchn.

I use “cans” in the instructions mostly because I’m too lazy to type out “cans, or souffle bowl, or any other cooking/baking vessel you decide to use” each time.

For the stovetop method, we don’t want the can* resting directly on the bottom of the pot–this can increase the probability of burning and uneven cooking (we’re calling it a steamed bread, but there’s is also some immersion/circulation cooking going on here)

Which leads, of course, to the question “why?” Why buttermilk? Can’t I just use plain milk?” That’s actually an easy one (finally! this post has been anything but easy–the baking soda requires acid to activate it. Well, acid and liquid. Unlike sweet milk, buttermilk (or its acid + milk analog) is acidic thus activating the baking soda.

And as a complete aside, this darn post, with this ridiculously simple recipe, took me almost a full week to complete. Why? Because I kept confusing myself with the instructions. Well, that and I had to delete my Post-Colonialism screeds. But really, making it is much easier than all of this sounds. Promise.

New England Clam Chowder

Clam Chowder, not unlike college students away from home for the first time, changes dramatically as it heads west. The classic New England style (not to be confused with the tomato-based Manhattan version. That’s just wrong) chowder, the one that you can get at any seafood shack or shanty in New England, is built in a clammy broth with (perhaps) just a touch of heavy cream to give it a more voluptuous mouthfeel. As it migrates westward, however, the fishy clamminess is muted more and more by increased amounts of dairy until it becomes little more than a light custard with clam bits. This, given that we lived in Michigan for a number of years before moving eastward, might explain why I’ve never been a big fan of clam chowder.

Before I get into the recipe, a caveat. One of the promises I made to myself when I started this project was “no special ingredients.” If I can’t get something at the local markets, I have to substitute or change recipes. That promise was tested for the first time with this one.  Normally, the Wegmans in my town has live littlenecks which are perfect for clam chowder. And if not the live ones, then fresh-shucked containers of them that are almost as good as the live ones.  Not this time.  I had a lengthy chat with the fishmonger during which I learned that the best time to get fish bones for stock is in summer because that’s when they get in the larger fish, and that they had been cleaned out of clams for the Thanksgiving holiday. But more were expected the next day if I wanted to come back for them.

I can confess, now, that the internal debate was boisterous. Wait. Buy canned. Wait. Buy canned. You get the picture. In the end, I decided to use canned, because that’s what was available. And boxed fish stock, because (since they don’t get the big ones until summer, right?) home made wasn’t an option. All of which is to say that today’s recipe is built on a foundation of boxed fish stock and Bumblebee canned clams with some smoky, bacony elements and just the right amount of heavy cream.  And you know what? It’s pretty damn good.

New England Clam Chowder

Serves 4 generously

Ingredients

4 6oz cans chopped clams

1 8oz bottle clam juice (I used Bar Harbor brand)

Fish stock (or water)

12 oz potatoes, small dice

4oz bacon (I used thick-cut) cut into lardons or cubes

1/2 large onion, small dice

4 stalks celery, small dice

2 TBS flour

1-2 cups milk*

1/2 cup heavy cream

2 springs fresh thyme

Salt and pepper to taste

Optional garnishes

  • Croutons
  • Bacon
  • Extra thyme
  • Tabasco

Instructions

  • Drain clams, reserving the liquid. Set clams aside
  • Add clam juice and fish stock to the reserved clam liquor. Combined liquids should total 1 quart
  • Simmer diced potatoes in the juice/stock blend until almost done (eg: you can pierce them with a fork, but just barely. This takes maybe 10-15 minutes once the liquid is at a simmer). Strain liquid into a bowl then set liquid and potatoes aside*
  • In the same pot, render the bacon then add onions and celery to the pan. Sweat until translucent but not brown.
  • Add flour to the bacon/onion/celery pan and cook slightly (blond roux stage), just long enough to lose the raw flour flavor

    Blond Roux

    Bad Photo of Blond Roux

  • Whisk in reserved stock until smooth. Or, well, as smooth as it can be given that it’s filled with bacon, celery, and onions
  • Simmer for 30 minutes, skimming if/as necessary
  • Bring milk and/or cream to a boil, slowly whisk into the stock. You may not need or want all of it–this is largely to taste
  • Stir in clams, potatoes, and thyme springs
  • Season to taste
  • Serve with optional items

Notes

  • The milk, while not entirely optional, should be added to taste. If you prefer a creamier chowder, add more. If you prefer it clammier, add less.
  • I recommend leaving the potatoes in the strainer to lessen the residual cooking.