Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

Amelia (1796) Strikes Again: “To Dress a Bass”

June 27, 2012

Tags: Amelia Simmons, bass, cod, stuffing, gill

Amelia Simmons’s stuffed striped bass, accompanied by Elizabeth Raffald’s stewed oysters

Good Every Way
Along the New England coast, it’s the peak time of year for catching striped bass. Or if like us you’re not that much into fishing, it’s the season when you can be sure to find this delicious species at your local market. Back at the very beginnings of the English settlement of New England, in 1634, William Wood, in his book New Englands Prospect, wrote that “though men are soon wearied with other fish, yet they are never with Basse.” Over two hundred years later, our good friend Catharine Beecher heartily agreed. “Bass are good every way,” she said. Nowadays, one of the ways of cooking bass that people particularly like is grilling it on a cedar plank, as is also popular with salmon, and as we did, using a recipe from Mrs. Bliss, with haddock (see our blog post, “Scrod or Young Cod, Roasted”).

Amelia Simmons offers another superb option for bass—filling it with a lovely bread stuffing and baking it. Unfortunately, last summer we didn’t decide to give Amelia’s recipe a go until a bit late in the season, when bass aren’t as plentiful. Our fish market could only provide us with one small fillet—not enough for four servings. But not to worry. Amelia explains at the end of her recipe that “the same method may be observed with fresh Shad, Codfish, Blackfish and Salmon.” Our market always has lots of codfish, so we brought a couple of cod fillets home along with our bass fillet.

The Ingredients
Serves 4

2 slices salt pork
½ teaspoon savory
½ teaspoon marjoram
1½ teaspoons dry, or 1 tablespoon fresh, parsley
¼ teaspoon salt
10 twists of a pepper mill
¼ teaspoon cayenne
2 slices white whole grain bread
1 egg
1 gill (½ cup) white wine
3 bass or cod fillets (about 1 lb.)
1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter, melted

How We Made It
We preheated the oven to 375°F. We took one of the slices of salt pork and chopped it into small pieces.

The other slice of salt pork we cut into strips, and we cubed the bread.

By the way, we used white whole grain bread because, of the breads readily available in today’s supermarkets, this type most closely approximates the basic wheat bread of Simmons’s time. We mixed together the first (chopped) slice of salt pork, the bread, the egg, the gill of white wine,


and the seasoning. The stuffing for our bass and cod fillets was ready.

We rolled our bass fillet around the stuffing,

whereas with our two cod fillets, we spread stuffing the length of one of them and placed the second on top, mimicking to some extent a whole stuffed fish.

It looks like the preheated oven would be the next destination.

But not so fast. You may be wondering about that second slice of salt pork, cut in strips. Simmons says to lay the salt pork strips on the fish “as it goes into the oven.”

This helps to keep it from getting too dry during baking.

We baked our bass and cod for an hour at 375°F, discarded the salt pork strips, and poured the melted butter over all.

Simmons says to serve your bass or cod with stewed oysters, boiled onions or potatoes, and cranberries. We made all but the boiled onions, using for the oysters an eighteenth-century recipe by Elizabeth Raffald that’s included in Northern Hospitality, p. 155.

The bass lived up to its reputation. And Simmons is correct--the “method” worked equally well with the cod.

It all made for a memorable New England baked fish feed!

Amelia Simmons’s original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 149.

Scrode or Young Cod, Roasted--from A Practical Cook Book by Mrs. Bliss (1850)

September 22, 2011

Tags: scrod, haddock, cod, roasting, Mrs. Bliss

Fresh haddock, planked and roasting

Scrod is most often broiled, so Mrs. Bliss's recipe for roasting it intrigued us. What would be the difference in taste between a nice piece of broiled scrod, as we've had any number of times at home and in restaurants, and roasted scrod? We were eager to find out.

But there was a prior question in need of an answer: What, exactly, is scrod? In our commentary on this recipe in Northern Hospitality, we discuss the word's etymology--few people have any idea what fish they're eating when they eat scrod, despite its enormous popularity in New England.

Is it a young or small cod? The tail of a haddock?

Or any pieces of fish or small fish suitable for broiling? It turns out that there's no exact definition for scrod—it can mean any of the above.

For our fish roasting experiment, we used the type of fish mentioned in the second paragraph of Mrs. Bliss's recipe—a luscious, fat haddock. Mrs. Bliss says to "procure a fat scrode, and require the fishmonger to open and dress it." We purchased a fish weighing 3 lbs. (sans its head), which had been cleaned and gutted. This regal poisson came right to our door by special order in an overnight delivery from Legal Seafoods in Boston.

It arrived expertly wedged among ice packs and looking as firm, fresh, and beautiful as it undoubtedly had the moment it emerged from the sea.

But it didn't arrive opened, as Mrs. Bliss recommends. It was in need of butterflying—that is, breaking its quite substantial ribcage so that it would lie flat. This took some doing by the stronger of the two of us, with our largest knife. It was finally accomplished

and the opened fish was ready for its minimal dressing with "a little salt and pepper."

Because we don't have a fireplace and hearth, we decided to roast our fish outside on our small Weber grill, covering the grill with two cedar planks obtained from our local Whole Foods Market and using natural wood charcoal for grilling.

The planks were used in place of the "board" to which Mrs. Bliss directs her readers to fasten their flattened fish. They (the planks, not Mrs. Bliss's readers) required soaking for an hour in cold water before they were to be used (to retard their burning on the grill). To ease the process of removing the fish when cooked, we brushed one side of the planks lightly with olive oil. We couldn't "stand the board up before a brisk fire," as Mrs. Bliss instructs. But we could place them above a brisk fire, so that's what we did.

Then for the backyard fish roast, an instant invitation to neighborhood cats and dogs to join the fun. We can't bring you sounds on our blog, but trust us that we roasted our fish to the honeyed crooning of the Lab who lives next door.

We spent a long time discussing how we were going to flip our haddock once it was roasted on one side. We planned to insert a pizza tin underneath the planks, lift out the pizza tin, planks, and fish together (wearing asbestos mitts), and with a cookie sheet held over the fish, flip it over. Then we planned to use spatulas to transfer the fish back directly onto the grill, with the side that was previously face up now face down over the coals.

On a larger grill, or with a firmer fish, this well might have worked. But as our lovely fish grilled, we soon realized its delicate flesh would fall apart under any such maneuver. Mrs. Bliss understood our dilemma, thus her instructions to "be careful not to break the fish in transferring it from the board to the gridiron." In that we had neither board, per se, nor gridiron, per se, but a modern, very hot Weber grill and an expensive haddock nicely planked, we decided to let the fish roast away, just as it was.

The butterflying had rendered the fish thin enough so that the hot coals were cooking it thoroughly without turning it directly onto the grill. The scents of the steaming cedar planks and the roasting fish were now provoking yowls of anticipation from the neighborhood pet population.

There were some differences between Mrs. Bliss's beginning the cooking process by attaching the fish to a board standing "before a brisk fire," and our procedure of cooking the fish on boards directly above a brisk fire. Obviously, we unfortunately had none of those appealing gridiron marks on the fish. However, this was compensated for by the nicely crisp skin and tail of the roasted haddock. It also took less time to cook the fish using our method. In the end, we grilled our planked haddock for just about 30 minutes, then removed it to a serving platter using two spatulas.

As Mrs. Bliss advises, we poured melted butter over the fish, and served it hot, along with fresh boiled corn, fresh tomatoes provided by a friend, and baked potatoes.

The fish was utterly delicious! A revelation really.

Thanks to Mrs. Bliss, haddock roasted on cedar boards has found a permanent place in our summertime grilling repertoire.

The original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 173.

Cod Chowder with a Puff Pastry Crust

August 8, 2011

Tags: chowder, cod, oysters, puff pastry, Hannah Glasse

To Make Chouder, A Sea-Dish

"Chouder, a Sea-Dish" is an elegant fish stew made with cod, oysters, mushrooms, wine, spices, and herbs. As if that weren't enough, it's topped with a puff paste crust. First published in 1758 by Hannah Glasse, this opulent dish is one of the earliest chowders in print. You can find the original recipe, and a few remarks about it by us, in Northern Hospitality (page 125). What follows is how we made it by pretty much following Hannah Glasse's instructions and ingredients list, but baking it in a modern oven.

We cooked ours using

The ingredients:
1½ lbs. fresh pork belly
2 lbs. cod fillets
½ cup flour
½ teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons dried sweet herbs (rosemary, thyme, marjoram, basil, oregano)
4-6 large common crackers (about 4 oz.)
2 yellow onions
1¼ cups water
1 9-inch puff paste crust, either homemade (see our next blog post) or store-bought and thawed
1 package (10 oz.) Baby Bella mushrooms
2 tablespoons butter
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ cup plus 1 cup Madeira
8 fresh oysters

To bake the chowder, we used a 5 quart, enameled cast iron stewpot with a cover. Any heavy, lidded pot will do—Dutch oven, French oven, or casserole.

In our local markets, we couldn't find the pickled pork belly called for by Glasse, so we substituted fresh pork belly. It worked fine.

The steps:
Preheat the oven to 300° F.

Cut the pork belly from the rind, then chop the pieces into ½-inch chunks, separating out the fattier bits. As Glasse advises, toss the fattiest pieces on the bottom of the stewpot so that when it's heated the fat will melt and coat the bottom of the pot.

Set aside the remaining pork belly pieces for layering with the cod, crackers, onion, and dried herbs.

Slice the onions about ¼ inch thick.

Break up the crackers into roughly 2-inch pieces. (Any bland, not overly salty or overly sweet cracker will do.)

Add the allspice, sea salt, and black pepper to the flour and mix lightly.

Cut the cod fillets into roughly 2-inch chunks. Dredge with the flour mixture.

As Glasse recommends, start layering with the the onion slices first. Then add the herbs, pieces of cod, bits of pork belly, and broken-up crackers. Repeat the layers until all the ingredients are used up, or until you reach a few inches from the top of the stewpot. Don't overfill the stewpot. Otherwise, when cooking, the bubbling mixture might spill out. Plus, you still need room to top the chowder with the puff paste.

Glasse says to pour in the water after the puff paste covers the pot. We found it easier to pour the water in at this point in the recipe, before putting on the puff paste. That way, we didn't have to cut a large slit in the paste to pour it in. But of course you can do it in the order Glasse describes if you're so inclined.

Carefully cover the chowder with the puff paste, crimping the edges of the paste to fit the shape of the stewpot. Put the paste directy over the chowder—don't lap it over the edges of the pot as you would with pie dough over a pie plate. You want to be able to remove it after it bakes.

Cut several slits in the center of the paste to allow steam to escape.

Our take on Glasse's instructions to "lute down the Cover of the Kettle" (seal it) was simply to put the cast iron lid on over the stewpot. With the puff paste already in place, this forms a sufficiently tight double seal for the chowder. In Glasse's day, covers often didn't fit as securely on pot bottoms as they do now--thus the need for "luting." Plus, Glasse was baking her chowder over a hearth fire, with hot embers placed on the lid, so she needed to be sure nothing untoward fell into the chowder!

Bake at 300° F. for 2 hours.

After the chowder has baked for about 1½ hours, you can begin to make the mushroom mixture that goes into the final dish.

Start by slicing or roughly chopping the mushrooms. We used Baby Bellas, but white mushrooms would work well too. Glasse recommends a fancy type of red mushroom called morels. We looked for them locally without luck. We found them online—at $100 a pound. Certainly use them—and truffles too—if your budget allows!

Shuck the oysters and set them and their liquor aside in a bowl. If you don't want to—or can't—find fresh oysters (or you don't want to shuck them), leave the oysters out of the recipe altogether. Don't substitute canned oysters. Less is more in this instance!

Sauté the mushrooms in the butter until they begin to soften. Add the cayenne pepper.

Add to the mushrooms the ¼ cup of Madeira (or other good-quality sherry if you can't find Madeira), and cook a bit longer, stirring often, until the mushrooms release some steam. When the mushrooms are cooked down and soft but not mushy, set the pan aside.

After baking the chowder for about two hours, increase the oven temperature to 400° F., remove the the lid, and bake for an additional 15-20 minutes, or until the puff paste turns a golden brown.

When the paste is golden brown and looking delicious, remove the stewpot from the oven and let it cool on a wire rack for 5-10 minutes.

Next, run a knife around the edges of the paste to separate it from the sides of the stewpot and carefully remove it in one piece, if you can. But don't despair if the paste breaks; you can reassemble it later. Or you can serve individual portions of chowder with pieces of puff paste on top. Once it's removed from the chowder, set the paste aside on a dish or platter.

Transfer the chowder (sans the paste) from the stewpot to a serving dish.

Add the oysters and their liquor to the mushrooms, return to a low heat, and stir to blend. Do not bring to a boil! Overcooked oysters become hard and rubbery, and make one regret the time and money spent on them.

Heat the remaining 1 cup of Madeira in a small saucepan until steaming hot but not boiling and add it to the mushroom mixture.

Pour the mushroom mixture into the chowder, mix lightly, and place the paste on top.

Voilà! You're ready to serve up some 1758 Chouder, A Sea-Dish.

6 servings.

Note: We think that this eighteenth-century chowder is well worth the bother to make it. There are a number of steps to follow, but none of them is complicated. (Except perhaps for the puff paste. But that can also be purchased ready-made. To go all out and make your own, see our next blog post.) There's a bonus to this recipe: Making it will give you practice in shucking oysters, always a useful skill!

The original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 125.