Most of you who live in other parts of the country probably know that New England is the home of Boston Baked Beans (it’s not called “Beantown” for nothing, after all), Boston Brown Bread (you know, the stuff that comes in a can, right?), and New England Clam Chowder. But I can pretty much guarantee you that most of you, including those presently residing in New England, have never tasted an authentic version of any one of them. Recipes for the classic preparations of these dishes have been buried or bastardized for so long that even during my Rhode Island childhood in the 1940s, my mother dished up canned baked beans and canned brown bread for dinner. This would be less shocking if not for the fact that both my parents were born and raised right in the heart of Boston during the first half of the last century!
I have lived in one part of New England or another for about 60 years, and the only time I ever tasted from-scratch Boston Baked Beans before I started making them at home was at Durgin Park, a restaurant that has been a Boston landmark ever since it began operating under that name in 1840. I was instantly hooked! But I never ran into them again, not in restaurants, and not in the homes of friends and family. So it was only natural that when I began cooking as a young woman I would want to try my hand at learning to make a pot of genuine Boston Baked Beans, and what better recipe to use than the one from Durgin Park? In recent years, with constant requests for large batches for family barbecues and birthdays, I finally succeeded in adapting the recipe to my satisfaction for the crockpot, and it has proven to be an ideal dish for that much-maligned vessel.
Side note: My daughter Jenn insists that I should make the addition of the Canadian Bacon/ham an essential part of the recipe. I agree that it adds a great meaty addition, but I usually just add it when I don’t want to have to make meat on the side. Here’s the recipe. Make up your own mind about the Canadian Bacon/ham.
CROCKPOT BOSTON BAKED BEANS
Adapted from the famous Durgin Park recipe
2 pounds dry navy, or Great Northern beans
1 tsp. baking soda
1 pound meaty salt pork, rind removed (see note below)
1 large onion, chopped
8 T sugar
2/3 cup molasses
2 tsp. dry mustard
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground pepper
A handful of cubed Canadian bacon or ham (optional – add with the salt pork)
Soak the beans overnight in cold water. In the morning parboil them in a large pot of water and a teaspoon of baking soda for ten minutes. Drain in a colander, and run cold water through the beans. Dice the salt pork in 1/2″ to 1” squares. Put half the beans in the bottom of a crock pot. Layer with half the chopped onion and half the salt pork. Layer with the rest of the beans. Top with the rest of the salt pork and onions.
Mix the other ingredients with 2 cups boiling water. Pour the mixture over the beans, then pour on additional boiling water until the water reaches just below the top layer of beans. You want to see the water, but not have it come up over the beans in any way. If you have too much water during cooking, you will “drown” the beans, and they will end up mushy. Start the crockpot on high to give it a good start. I leave it at that setting for 3 hours. By then the beans should be bubbling lightly. Reduce the heat to low and cook for about another 3 hours. Try not to stir the beans while cooking until just towards the end of the cooking time, perhaps the last hour, as this too can make them mushy. A gentle stir towards the end will help distribute the molasses flavor, and promote even coloring. During cooking, add water a bit at a time, as needed, but only to bring the water up to the starting level (just below the top layer of beans).
The beans will stay hot in the crockpot for at least an hour after they have finished cooking, with no heat under them. If it’s going to be longer than that, just put them on your warm setting to hold them.
Note: The rind is easier to take off the salt pork when it is cold. A few minutes in the freezer will get it stiff enough to make quicker work of the job.
So, while you have the beans slowly cranking away in the crockpot, you really should throw together (and that’s how incredibly simple it is) some Boston Brown Bread, for a classic Beantown combo. Don’t pass it by. Your family will love it and its wonderful molasses flavor is the perfect complement to the beans. I used to make it in the traditional way, steaming the recipe in three 1-pound coffee cans. It was a bit of a stretch, convenience-wise, but worth it for the great flavor. But I always wondered … could there be a simpler way to make it without compromising the end result? Then a couple of years ago I saw that Mark Bittman bakes it in a loaf pan. Duh! I tried it and that was it! No more coffee cans, no aluminum foil lids sealed with elastics, no lengthy steaming! Just a delicious, easy as 1,2,3 quick bread baked in a standard pan.
Since then, living alone as I now do, I decided to try them in a muffin top pan so I could wrap them up and freeze them to toast for breakfasts. Now I can enjoy a favorite breakfast bread whenever I crave some, without the downside of having to finish off a whole loaf in one sitting.
One 9” x 5” loaf or 18 toaster cakes
BOSTON BROWN BREAD
2 cups buttermilk
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup rye flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
¾ cup molasses
1 cup raisins
Preheat oven to 300º F.
Mix dry ingredients, then add molasses and buttermilk. Stir just until mixed. Pour into a greased 9” x 5” loaf pan. Bake one hour (15 minutes for muffin tops), or until a toothpick stuck into the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for ten minutes before removing from pan.
I’m afraid to even get started venting about what has happened to New England Clam Chowder in my lifetime. So before I begin what is bound to be a rant, let me share with you my credentials in the chowder arena. First, I was born and raised in Rhode Island, in a chowder-loving family. OK, so were a lot of people, you say. Ah, yes, but that’s not the “chowder cred” of which I speak. When I was 18 years old I spent one lucky summer working the lunch counter at one of the most iconic eateries on Cape Cod: Mildred’s Chowder House.
The chowder at Mildred’s was the stuff legends are made of, and rightfully so. A few years after my tenure there (two, to be exact), John Kennedy became President. It is well known that whenever he visited the family compound in Hyannisport he would send Secret Service agents to Mildred’s to fetch a huge vat of her clam chowder. (A vat? Yes, apparently after one taste the secret service agents, too, became hooked and had to have their fix every Saturday while they were there).
And so it was that every day for the entire summer of 1958 I ate a bowlful of Mildred’s creamy, flavor-packed Clam Chowder for lunch. Every day, that is, except Friday. On Fridays Mildred would roll out her equally famous (and, if I recall correctly, limited supply of) Fish Chowder and I routinely succumbed to its siren call.
So I repeat, I know my chowder. I LOVE my chowder. And I HATE what’s been done over the years to this simple and simply delicious soup for apparently no good reason, except that perverse human itch to tinker with a good thing long enough to ruin it. People like a nice thick chowder? Forget about the cream; just add enough flour to the mix so that their spoons can literally stand tall in the bowl without a prop. Reduce the amount of clams, or just use canned ones, replace the salt pork with bacon, or, if you keep the salt pork, don’t even bother to crisp it up to the crackling stage to impart the gloriously nutty hallmark scent and flavor of great chowder. Or, add some sherry or thyme to give it a unique twist. Just wing it; after all, that’s progress, right? Things have gotten to such a state of nasty preparations that in recent years Mildred’s closed its doors, clearly because, according to one acerbic online review, their chowder had become the worst to be found on the Cape.
And so it is that I offer up the following wonderful, authentic recipe for New England Clam Chowder. I started with the famous recipe from Legal Sea Foods, a restaurant that still does right by a bowl of chowder. I have altered it somewhat to come up with a recipe that can easily be replicated again and again, in a slightly larger amount, and with more detailed instructions for handling the clams to get rid of any grit. It works, and is a first-rate, straight-forward rendition of a great New England classic. Treat yourself!
If you are still bent on getting your hands on a recipe for the “real deal” Mildred’s Clam Chowder, you might want to read my follow-up post, detailing my extended quest to find people still among the living who knew the secret to how she made it.
Makes about 8 bowls
WORLD’S BEST NEW ENGLAND CLAM CHOWDER
Adapted from The Legal Sea Foods Cookbook
26 very large quahogs (the ones I use are the size of my fist)
2 cloves garlic
1 1/4 cups water
5 ounces salt pork, finely chopped
1 large and 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
4 T flour
2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into ½” dice
About 9 cups fresh clam broth, which you should get from steaming the clams
Light cream to taste
(Bottled clam juice or fish broth to supplement, if needed
Scrub the quahogs well and put them in a large pot with the garlic and water. Steam the clams until they open, about 6 to 8 minutes, depending on their size. Drain and shell the clams, reserving the broth. Rinse the shelled clams in the reserved broth to get any grit or sand off. Then mince the clams. Filter the clam broth with a paper coffee filter or a double thickness of cheesecloth. Measure and reserve. You should get about 9 to10 cups; if you don’t, you can supplement it with a little bottled clam juice or fish broth.
In a large, heavy pot, slowly render the salt pork until it is good and crisp (after this step they are called cracklings). This step is critical to the final flavor of the dish, so don’t rush it. Remove the cracklings from the pan and set aside. Slowly cook the onions in the rendered fat for about 6 minutes, stirring frequently, until they are cooked, but not browned. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly for 3 minutes, to cook the flour.
Add the reserved 9 cups of clam broth (with supplements, if necessary) and whisk to smooth. Bring the liquid to a boil and add the potatoes. Lower the heat and simmer until the potatoes are just cooked through, about 15 minutes.
Stir in the reserved salt pork cracklings, clams and light cream to the level of creaminess that appeals to you. Heat the chowder over low heat until piping hot, (but don’t ever bring it to a boil), and serve.
Some people like their chowder with oyster crackers on top. If you’re one of them, go for it.