Sunday, August 2, 2015

Dining-in: A Culinary Tour of America-New Bedford, Massachusetts

The Location: New Bedford, Massachusetts
2013 census: 95,078 people; 66.5% white; 22.2% Hispanic. Per capita income $20,517

New Bedford is nicknamed "The Whaling City," because it was a large whaling port in the 19th century. Fun fact: In 1841, Herman Melville shipped off on the Acushnet whaling ship from New Bedford. His experiences on that ship would inspire the story of Moby Dick.

Prior to the European invasion, the region was home to the Wampanoag tribe who numbered approximately 12,000. New Bedford was settled by Europeans in 1652. The city's first newspaper was founded in 1792, as was the first post office. When Europeans began to arrive, they came in several different waves of ethnic groups. First came the British Protestants, and then the Irish. With the advent of the first cotton mill in 1846, came the Portuguese. After them came the Polish and Eastern European Jews in the late 1800's.

New Bedford, along with Fall River and Greater Providence, have the largest Portuguese American population in the entire country. Every year, New Bedford is host to the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament, a festival devoted to Portuguese and Portuguese-American culture. This year marks the 101st year, and it runs from July 30-August 2nd. Events include a parade, fado singing(think Portuguese blues, a genre dominated by women), and tons of Portuguese food. The feast was started at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in 1915. It was an homage to a similar feast celebrated each year in Madeira Island.

 Here is a video of an example of fado singing. It's quite lovely, I think.

And here is a video of folk music and dancing at a past Feast of the Blessed Sacrament, so you can visualize what it's like there.


In honor of the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament, an event that I was first introduced to in the movie Passionada, a lovely romance starring Jason Isaacs wearing a horrible wig, I decided I had to partake in it when I began this food blog. I have never cooked Portuguese food before and it all looks so amazing, so I was very excited to try it. I chose two recipes and both of them included ingredients I'd never used before. It turns out that I will probably never use one of them again...

The Food: Caldo Verde and Bacalhau

 Salt Cod, out of the box

Bacalhau: Basically salt cod cakes or fritters. I used a recipe from The Frugal Gourmet on Our Immigrant Ancestors cookbook by Jeff Smith. The recipe did not turn out so I will not bother writing it out here. I'll just explain what happened.

Salt cod, after soaking for a day

I cooked with salt cod for the first and probably last time yesterday. Salt cod has a long history, it dates back at least 500 years. It was a way of preserving food for the long winter months and some say it makes the fish taste even better. That might be a bit of an exaggeration. It took an email, a trip to two different stores and $12 for me to track down the salt cod. It is not easy to find in Seattle. But find it I did. I followed the instructions to soak it in water starting late Thursday night. I kept it in a pan of water in the fridge and changed the water several times on Friday and Saturday morning. I think maybe I did it too soon because it didn't seem to have any flavor when I finally cooked it up. All the salt was gone. To cook the fish, you just simmer it in water for about a half hour. Do you know what the smell of boiled over fish water on your stove as it evaporates on the burner smells like? I hope you don't. Because I do, and I wish I didn't...

The breading was made by leaving fresh bread out to dry and grating it into breadcrumbs. I didn't have quite enough so I used panko for the rest. You mix this with olive oil, fresh garlic, and spices. When the fish is cool enough to handle, you crumble it into flakes and mix it into the breadcrumb mixture. I did not realize until it was too late that it was not boneless fish. I got some of the bigger bones out, but I'm pretty sure I was feasting on fish bones last night...Not a pleasant thought.

The breading didn't keep the cakes together. It needed more of a binder, maybe an egg or milk or something. When I formed the cakes, they just crumbled but I fried them up anyway. It turned into basically a breaded fish hot mess hash. The flavor was pretty good, though the fish was no longer flavorful. The garlic was a very good addition and worked really well with it. I put some lemon juice on it and that turned out pretty good too, but it wasn't enough to save this trainwreck of a dish. Because salt cod is so expensive, hard to track down, and labor intensive to prepare, I don't know that I will ever try this one again, but it was a fun experiment. I think if I ever want to try it again, I'll splurge and go to a restaurant that has them on the menu.

Caldo Verde: This sounds like a really exotic dish, but it's Portuguese for kale and potato soup with linquica sausage. Linguica sausage is another new ingredient to me that took a while to track down. It looks like kielbasa but it's redder and has a milder flavor. In case you want to try this sometime, Safeway carries it. It's a tad expensive, but it's there. If you can't find it, kielbasa would make an ideal substitute. I have heard this of this dish over the years but never attempted it before. This one was a winner, thankfully! I will post the link to the original recipe because I found it online.

Caldo Verde is what you would call "peasant" food. It has humble ingredients like potatoes, sausage, and kale. The sausage flavors the soup but isn't a main component. The potato and kale are definitely the stars of the show. Some versions also include beans, but I chose one that didn't since I don't always like beans in my food. It was very simple and pretty quick to prepare. It might not be the ideal food for an 85+ degree day, but it worked out just fine.

You start with four large russet potatoes, scrubbed, peeled, and sliced thin. Put them in a large pot and cover with two quarts of chicken stock. Cook for about 20 minutes until the potatoes are cooked through. In the meantime, chop two cloves of garlic and a small onion and saute in olive oil until softened. Put these into the pot with the potatoes. When the potatoes are cooked, remove the pot from the heat and puree with a hand-held blender or in a regular blender. If you have neither of these available, a potato masher would probably work though it might be chunkier than with the other methods.

At the same time as the potatoes are cooking saute 6 ounces of thinly-sliced linquica sausage in olive oil and when that has cooked until browned put in 1 lb. julienned kale(I used purple kale but use whatever you like the most. Just cut it off the stems and julienne in long strips.) to the frying pan. Cover and let cook down until partly cooked before pouring that and the sausage into the pot of pureed potato soup. Return the pot to medium heat and cook through until the kale has cooked down. Mix well before serving. You can put olive oil on the top if you like though I skipped that step.

The soup was really good and I think it'll be even better reheated. Soup always tastes better the next day, doesn't it? I gave some to my parents and grandparents to try and froze a couple servings so I'll get to enjoy it later on. The fish cakes tasted pretty good but visually they just didn't work. I think they're too impractical to try again, but I really did enjoy experimenting with it. I'll just wait until I get to go to the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament in person one day to try them made by people who actually know what they're doing. Do try the soup though, you won't regret it!

Feast of the Blessed Sacrament website

Caldo Verde Recipe

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