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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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08.11.08

Spilling the Beans on Boston Eats (in Chicago)

Food Memoir, Recipes


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Ah, colonial times. A simpler age when settlers wooed natives, Pilgrims popularized Turkey Day, and witches were hung like tinsel.


It seems like just yesterday Paul Revere galloped his midnight ride. And who could forget that tea-chucking ceremony in Boston Harbor? (a decidedly less frilly tea party then those with dolls and china). The most glistening of past-time treasures from this bygone era, however, had to be the newfound food. Picture a smorgasbord of legumes, grains, and vegetables, sprawled around a glistening roast turkey, freshly killed that morning. Curious colonists, setting up shop in backwoods Massachusetts, had a lot of culinary know-how to learn from the locals. Let’s not forget, of course, the bevy of crustaceans and fish so abundant in the coastal waters that they practically swam right into the cooking pots. It didn’t take long for the new neighbors to hone their cooking skills and adapt to their residential ingredients. After all, as the saying goes: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Or in the New England sense, when life gives you clams, make chowder.

A “chowder-head,” by loose definition, is an unintelligent or irrational person. If that’s the case, then I’ll proudly flaunt my stubborn stupidity like a badge of honor. As I see it, anything that attaches the word “chowder” to its name can do no such harm to my self-esteem (unless of course, I was called “Manhattan chowder-head,” at which point I would plummet into a world of shame and depression). You see, I’m a born and bred New Englander, a Boston suburbanite with a taste for tradition in more ways than one. I, alongside my fellow Bostonians, take my food seriously; the lore of it, the heritage, and the “bend on our knees and pray” Thanksgiving associated with it. Mention the joke that is Manhattan clam chowder to me, and I’ll be forced to slap you with my Red Sox cap. Fret not my readers, I am fully aware that I live in Chicago, an dining Mecca if there ever was one. I need not a reminder of the crowd to whom I preach, and I cannot stress enough how proud I am today to call myself a transplanted foodie in culinary paradise. However, be it known that nary a week or two goes by where I don’t jones for the flavors of my hometown; my bean lovin’, chowder slurpin’, lobster boilin’ hometown. Thank my Sox and stars then, that I live in Chicago, where my beloved Boston eats always lie waiting and I can dine like a king on the Atlantic coast.

Visiting Boston without sampling seafood would be like staying in Vegas without sinning; a rash mistake by which one entirely misses the point. Seeing as how Boston is nestled amid so much seawater it’s practically an island, it should come as an obvious “duh” that the city does seafood right. As a matter of fact, the nation’s oldest continuously run restaurant, Union Oyster House, has called Boston home since 1826. For almost two centuries, cooks have been frying, steaming, boiling, and baking the day’s fresh catch into dishes the city has come to be known for. Lobster rolls, clam strips, Atlantic sea scallops, baked scrod, New England lobster boils, cod cakes, and the eponymous chowder are all icons in the seafood world, painstakingly replicated in cookbooks and restaurants nationwide.

Here in the Midwest heartland though, we’re also fortunate enough to have a thick, steaming bowl of clam chowder no more than a transit ride away. The Fish Keg (2233 W. Howard) has been a family-run seafood shanty on the far north side for more than half a century. With all that history and all that customer loyalty, you can safely bet that they know a thing or two about clam cookery. “Our New England clam chowder is a popular, everyday item that people order,” says day manager Monty Williamson. “Even through the summer, when it’s hot and muggy out, it still sells really well.” This goes to show that no time is a bad time for a piping hot crock of clams, potatoes, butter, and cream. For a scant $2.49, you can have an 8 oz. cup of clam chowder anytime of year (though you may want to scrounge up an extra buck or two for seconds and a dunk-able yeast roll). Not in the mood to burn your tongue on a scorching August afternoon? The Fish Keg also does a ravenous cod business, offering the popular fish as cakes (think crab cakes but fishier), or by whatever non-fried serving portion fits your fancy.

Why is it that the refreshing, mayo-dressed lobster roll isn’t as popular as those other bun-bound ballpark foods (ahem, hotdogs)? This “lazy man’s” lobster eliminates the hassle of say, killing the shellfish yourself and then mangling its boiled carcass. Plump lobster meat is roughly chopped and mixed simply with mayonnaise, salt, pepper, and maybe a sprinkling of herbs before being overstuffed into a buttered and grilled hotdog bun. Now doesn’t that sound just a tad tastier than encased meat? At Shaw’s Crab House (21 E. Hubbard, with another location on Higgins Rd. in Schaumburg), the New England lobster roll is a menu crown jewel untouchable by anyone else in town (unfortunately, there isn’t much competition). The eager-to-please host told me that “no one compares to our lobster roll. Ours is the best.” My, those are some bold words. After reading the juicy description of and biting into the Maine lobster chunks tossed with mayo and herbs, stuffed inside a rich Challah roll, I was hooked like a baited fish. The restaurant also doles out clam chowder by the plentiful bowl, shucks Atlantic oysters with a side of jazz at the raw bar, and lays out a family feast called “Rocky’s Lobster Deal” : whole boiled blood-red lobster, served with corn on the cob, baby potatoes, coleslaw, and a cup of buttery lobster bisque. Can somebody say “pass the lobster?”

“When my grandfather started out the business, it was just fresh and local fish. When my dad started, there grew a much larger demand for East coast seafood.” So goes the legacy of Hagen’s Fish Market (5635 W. Montrose), as narrated by Tammy Jesse, third generation Hagen and manager. At Hagen’s, the world is the customer’s oyster. In addition to the endless possibilities fish-cravers are afforded through their two-day special order service, the market has a massive roster of daily carry out items as well as the option to bring in your own fish for them to smoke on site (think of it as B.Y.O.F., or “bring your own fish”). Every day, seafood comes flying in from the East coast; to be made into the likes of clam chowder, smoked haddock fillets, and fried cod sticks. Ever tried scrod? This young hybrid of cod and haddock is routinely laid out on crushed ice, fresh and ripe for the taking. And since one can never get enough lobster, Hagen’s makes sure to always have Maine shellfish on hand, especially during the onslaught of lavish holiday dinner party orders.

Surely Bostonians don’t exist on shellfish alone? Of course, one needs a round table of side dishes and sweets to round out a meal. One of the most famed and befitting accompaniments to a whole boiled lobster or a Yankee pot roast is a cup of Boston baked beans. The tradition of baking beans over night in animal skins with bear fat and maple syrup was the recipe handed down from Native American to Puritan housewife. However, seeing as the average cupboard isn’t stocked with bear drippings and their skins, the colonists subbed in the more attainable molasses and pork fat. The gooey, sweet and savory stew of tender beans has long been a side dish staple on any a Boston restaurant worth its salt. Where can you partake in this Iroquois-created, Puritan-tweaked creation? Silver Cloud Bar & Grill (1700 N. Damen) saves you the trouble of cooking in a cast iron pot over night and serves the stuff as a side to other classic American comfort foods. In addition to those molasses-laced legumes, Silver Cloud’s also cranking out a few other East coast entrée accompaniments. Creamed corn, tater tots, and sweet potato casserole are dishes just as popular at a Boston high school cafeteria as they were when early settlers were experimenting with indigenous goods.

When it comes to sugar, Boston may be the birthplace of the Tollhouse chocolate chip cookie and nostalgic candy like maple sugar fudge and salt water taffy may be the souvenir of choice for out-of-towners, but when it came time to get serious and elect a state dessert, it was the almighty Boston cream pie that rose supreme. The name may be misleading, with not a pie crust in sight; but it’s understandable why a city would be proud of a double-layered sponge cake dessert filled with pastry cream and frosted in chocolate glaze (if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll even find yourself a cherry on top). Many a birthday of mine, I would blow out the candles on my Boston cream pie, making sure to fend off the family and save the big pieces for myself. Having moved halfway across the country from my bean town, I was initially worried that my future birthdays would be sadly cream pie-less. Andersonville bakery to the rescue! The Swedish Bakery (5348 N. Clark) may bake Swedish pastry as its bread and butter, but they also do old fashioned American desserts proud. Although it’s not in-store, one day’s notice is all it takes to special order a Boston cream pie. With its delicate sponge cake tiers, light vanilla cream filling, and fudge-like chocolate ganache, I’ve yet to slice a cake as worthy of a birthday as this one.

Now, of course, there were a few food sacrifices I had to make in leaving my land of mother grains and seafood; Boston brown bread and Indian pudding being tops on my homesick list. Boston brown bread is more like bread pudding than sliced Wonder Bread. The quick bread is made from a mix of cornmeal, flour, baking soda, raisins, molasses, and maple syrup, poured into a can and steam-cooked over a double boiler. Often times, the dense, sweet bread would be the perfect scooping vessel for my baked beans. Alas, as I have ventured from the homeland, the only Boston brown bread to be found is canned in grocery store aisles. Then there’s Indian pudding, a gruel-like oleo of cornmeal and molasses; essentially a sweet tooth’s version of grits. With a recipe so astoundingly simple, albeit time-consuming, I can’t believe there is not an authentic bowl to be found outside Boston. Fear not my revelers of confectionary corn porridge and interested parties alike. I’ve got an easy-to-follow recipe, courtesy of Boston’s ancient and renowned Durgin-Park that is sure to round out your own Boston buffet nicely, right alongside those baked beans, chowders, cream pies, and lobster rolls.

Ingredients:

3 cups milk
¼ cup molasses
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons butter, melted
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon baking powder
1 large egg, beaten
½ cup yellow cornmeal

Procedure:
1). Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and grease a 1-quart casserole dish.
2). In a large bowl, mix together half of the milk with the molasses, sugar, butter, salt, baking powder, egg, and cornmeal.
3). Pour the mixture into the casserole and bake until it boils, about 20-25 minutes.
4). Heat the remaining 1 ½ cups milk on the stovetop and stir it into the casserole.
5). Lower the oven temperature to 300 degrees and bake for about 6 hours.
6). Serve warm with a mandatory scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.
4-6 servings

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