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.



"Fricasseed Rabbits" by Eliza Leslie, a dish from 1840

March 14, 2012

Tags: Eliza Leslie, rabbit, fricassee, flour, butter, thickened stock, cream, gill

Rabbit simmered in a cream sauce, courtesy of Eliza Leslie (1840)

The Historic Setting
As we discuss in Northern Hospitality, game was neither as prominent in cooking sources nor as prestigious among the upper classes in New England as it had been among the aristocracy in England. Perhaps the difference in valuation can be attributed to the desire of the English colonists to distance themselves from the Indians' ways of obtaining food. For many settlers, too, hunting was a time-consuming activity of uncertain outcome that took the men of the household away from the important tasks associated with farming. Finally, we speculate, the plenitude of the resource in New England from the earliest years of settlement through most of the nineteenth century made wild game an important supplement to the diet but kept it from becoming the locus of leisure which it had been for the highest classes in England, where by law only the aristocracy could hunt it.

Now, however, among the gentry of our own day, game dishes have risen to the top of the fancy food pyramid. Game has become a favorite main course at dinner parties and a highlight of the menus in elegant restaurants. But that doesn't mean we average folk can't have a taste. Rabbit, especially, is quite reasonably priced relative to other meat. It's also rich in protein and poor in fat, music to the dietary ears of most modern Americans. Eliza Leslie's "Fricasseed Rabbits" ranks high among the most captivating recipes for game that we found in nineteenth-century cookbooks. So we encourage you to follow along as we cook our own version of this delightful dish.

Rabbit Hunting
At this time of year, wild rabbit season has concluded in most of New England and further south. But with a bit of effort, those of us who hunt butcher shops, farmer's markets, and grocery stores more often than we stalk our food outdoors can find fresh or frozen rabbit, both wild and domesticated. It is generally agreed that hutch rabbits are less lean and gamey-flavored than wild. However, we prepared the following dish using farmed rabbit and it was chock-full of flavor. In buying rabbit, take care to get a relatively small, young animal, though it should be substantial enough to supply meat for four servings. Older, larger rabbits, which some say are more flavorful than the younger variety, are naturally also tougher. The quick-cooking method of the fricassee (see below) works best with more tender meat. We found that a rabbit weighing a bit under 2 lbs. provided pleasant meat.

What's a Rabbit and What Isn't
The family Leporidae includes species of both hare and rabbit. Alan Davidson, the great encyclopedist of food, begins his entry on rabbit in the Oxford Companion to Food (1999) by pointing out the nomenclatural confusion of the terms used in North America to distinguish between rabbits and hares. Davidson tells us that Europeans would consider the American cottontail rabbit and marsh hare to be rabbits; the jackrabbit would be a hare. Ever the pragmatist, Davidson also points out that the main difference is that "the flesh of rabbit is pale and mildly flavoured," that of hare is "dark and often very strong." In Northern Hospitality, we also give a recipe for hare. It's by Englishwoman Susannah Carter and it appears in a colonial edition.

What the Fr__c is a Fricassee?
Fricassees aren’t made that often nowadays, but they were quite popular right through to the end of the nineteenth century. They were one of the many French dishes that the English had begun imitating and adapting in the seventeenth century. Although at first egg yolks were a basic ingredient, in the eighteenth century variations were developed substituting flour-thickened broth, cream, or combinations of these. Also fricassees were usually fried and then simmered, but later on recipes began to appear in which the initial frying was omitted. Leslie’s “Fricasseed Rabbits” is of this latter-day, simmered-only, thickened-broth-and-cream persuasion.

The Ingredients
Serves 4-6

1 1¾ lb. rabbit
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground mace
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 cups beef stock, warmed
1 tablespoon flour
1½ tablespoons butter, cut into six pats
1 gill (½ cup) light cream
¼ teaspoon nutmeg (about)

Our Version of Eliza Leslie’s Fricasseed Rabbit
First we made our rabbit multiply like, or rather into, rabbit pieces—9 in all, 2 legs, including thighs, 2 halves of the loin or saddle, 5 pieces of rib meat, with bone (the forelegs, head, and offal had been removed previously at the butcher shop).



Then we sprinkled the salt, mace, cayenne pepper, and parsley over the pieces,


put them in a deep skillet,


poured the warmed beef stock over them,


and simmered them, turning them over several times as we did so:


When they were half done (after about 20 minutes),


it was time to coat the six pats of butter in the flour,


add them to the skillet, mix them in with the stock and rabbit pieces, and continue simmering until the pieces were tender, about 20 minutes longer. Then we put the cream and grated nutmeg in our gill measure (optional!—a plain old measuring cup will do just fine)


and mixed it into the liquid in the skillet:


Our fricasseed rabbit was now ready to be enjoyed—a tasty alternative to simmered or fricasseed chicken!


Eliza Leslie’s original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 210.