New England Boiled Dinner--only for the stout of heart and strong of stomach


Sep 5, 2001


The Bottom Line No matter what it is, try it before you turn your nose up at it. Who knows, you might find a new favorite.

A New England Boiled Dinner: Ah, what a concept. Corned beef, cabbage, carrots, potatoes and green beans, all thrown into one large pot and boiled and boiled and boiled and boiled until all the taste and food value leave them and the whole thing turns into one dun-colored, gelatinous pot of glop. It don't get no better than that, folks.

What the hell am I saying? Of course it gets better than that. The dinner described above is reminiscent of the way my late mother (God rest her soul and cook pots) used to cook. Ma was the world's worst cook. Really. She was a lovely lady, a fine person and a very kind woman. However, for the love of God, please keep her away from the kitchen.

My mother would take a can of asparagus, open it and pour the contents into a small pan, set it on the stove, light it off and walk away. Her theory was that she did her part by opening the can and putting the pan on the stove. Now it was up to the asparagus to get cooked properly--she had other things to do.

The boiled dinner spoken of above was just a variation on the theme. She would take the corned beef (RED, NOT GREY), the cabbage, potatoes and whatever else her eye fell on, throw them into a pot of water and hope for the best. It never happened.

Her other variations on this were: 1. chicken (boiled chicken is the worst, driest and stringiest food on God's green earth. (Yes, Ma, I know you cooked it, but what did I do wrong that I have to be punished by eating it?); and 2. boiled beef that came out the same way. It was only the color that enabled me to distinguish one from the other.

Her Friday night boiled (yukkk) dinner consisted of boiled chicken (we got the soup first which was good, then the chicken, which tried to run away), boiled potatoes, boiled carrots, boiled green beans or boiled asparagus. The asparagus, by the time it came off the stove, resembled green library paste. The library paste tasted better and had more nutritional value. And this was every Friday night. Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall, if it was Friday night the chicken was begging for mercy.

The boiled beef dinner was no better. You're not supposed to boil beef in plain water until it starts to moo again. That's a traditionally British dish I understand. We were Boston born and raised Jews. That meant we all loved Chinese food. Of course, Jews are not allowed to eat pork or shellfish EXCEPT in a Chinese restaurant (other Jews will understand that one).

It wasn't until I met and married The Bride that I began to eat any vegetables other than potatoes or corn. How does one screw up mashed potatoes and/or corn? Ma tried. She really tried.

The Bride introduced me to a new concept in food: it should be edible. She steams the green beans, cabbage, carrots, etc. until they are cooked but still very firm and crunchy. They have real flavor to them and, unlike Ma's cooking, they're not as limp as a dead elephant's trunk.

Ma, I loved you dearly and still miss you terribly. However, you were the real reason I was on a first name basis with every waiter, waitress and restaurant owner on the South Shore of Boston.

During these forays into the restaurant world I found that some other things to look for and enjoy in New England cuisine are:

1. Fried clams WITH THE BELLIES: We'd go to Nantasket Beach, Revere Beach or Quincy Shore Drive and get clams, fries and a large Coke. We needed the large Coke because of the 65 tons of salt we put on the fries.

2. Fish and chips: Fried, of course with tartar sauce or Tabasco sauce for the fish and another 65 tons of salt for the fries.

3. Lobster: Ya gotta be careful with lobster. If you boil it too long (yes, Ma?) it becomes soggy and unappetizing. If you don't boil it long enough you can get sick (what, Ma? Did I say you did it?) There was so much work involved for so little meat that lobster never became a real favorite of mine.

4. Shrimp cocktail: Well, maybe. The shrimp is simply a vehicle for carrying the cocktail sauce from the dish to your mouth. It really has very little flavor. Try using a Ritz cracker or a piece of bread for the sauce.

5. Scallops are a gift from God. Fresh bay scallops, baked, broiled or fried with tartar sauce make my toes curl the other way. If the scallops taste "fishy", don't touch them any more. Send them back--they've gone bad.

6. New England Clam Chowder: This, when properly made, is the nectar of the gods. Never mind that scuzzy Manhattan style clam chowder--that's nothing more than tomato soup with lumps. New England Clam Chowder (I genuflect each time I say that) should be fairly thick without affording one the opportunity to walk on its surface. It should have an abundance of clams, onions and potatoes and you should be able to taste each ingredient individually, as well as appreciate the entire blend. Use pepper only on this. Don't ask why--just take my word for it and do it.

7. Mussels: It is to projectile barf from them. I wouldn't give mussels houseroom with a gun to my head. I tried them once--ONCE. They were mealy, tasteless and smelled terrible. Quoth the raven: nevermore.

8. Oysters: Yum. I introduced The Bride to them while we were in New Orleans and she fell as much in love with them as did I. You eat them with horse radish and/or Tabasco sauce. They're the nicest of all the shellfish 'cuz you don't have to chew them. They slide right down your throat all by themselves, bless their slippery little hearts.

9. Crab: I'm sorry, kids, I know this is a direct contradiction to what I said the the Bottom Line, but I just cannot get past the word. I've been told that crab is delicious. Fine. I'll take your word for it--you can have my share. I have a very nasty memory from back in 1957, when I was in the Navy, out to sea, playing hearts one evening and saw something small, green and many-legged crawling down my arm. I've never gotten to Sick Bay that fast before or since.

10. Squid and/or Octopus: No, thanks. I've tried both and didn't care for either. They were both bland and rubbery. You like squid and octopus? Good for you. Enjoy it all your life. It may be delicious in your mouth, but not in mine.

Well, kids, that's it for me and my take on New England Cuisine for now. I love food (thank God you can't see my profile) and detest those who have no respect for it.

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