Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Americana in the Kitchen-Mush and Boiled Cider edition


When I was twenty four, recently married and transplanted to Boston I couldn't cook at all. I had a set of  Revere Ware pots and pans, and a Betty Crocker cookbook, and absolutely nothing resembling homemaking skills of any sort. I never cooked at home, and the only marketing I did was with a list provided by my mother. I was good at reading lists, and following directions. You could reliably send me to the store to retrieve items-you just couldn't expect me to do anything with them. Fortunately for me, I had a few friends a generation ahead that felt sorry enough for my lack of domestic skills that they set about correcting the deficit. It didn't happen overnight, and there were cluttered apartments, piles of laundry, and bad meals chalked up to the learning curve before I finally could manage my household in a reasonable manner. "Keep a running grocery list in the kitchen, and replace things as you use them", was the advice of one friend. "Wash full loads of laundry to save money and time", said another. These are things I still do, automatically now without remembering there was a time I didn't know better. "Make boiled cider in the autumn" I resisted for years thinking it a silly New England thing that no one did anymore. Who uses boiled cider anymore? These days, I do.

The boiled cider advice came from the same woman that put up several gallons of applesauce each year from scavenged apples, and then essentially lived on it all winter. Puzzled by the pink colour of it, she explained that there's little point peeling apples as it all goes through the food mill at the end anyway. The skins gave it the lovely colour. By December or January when the inevitable seasonal cold would set in, there she'd be at my door a messenger of motherly advice and bearer of applesauce. My husband was intimidated by her Yankee manner (think Katharine Hepburn) but was always happy to see her show up at the door unannounced on a snowy day when she'd decided it would be a fine time to hike the mile uphill from the train station to our house, armed with applesauce.

This is a good time to explain what, "Cider" is in the United States. It is not alcoholic, as "Cider" would be in most parts of the world (we call that, "Hard Cider"). Rather, it is a pressed, unfiltered apple juice that these days is often pasturised, but is otherwise a rustic sort of drink. It is pulpy, and cloudy, and if left too long it will ferment, but not in a nice way and as Mr. ETB can tell you from his teenaged experience with drinking expired cider-it will make you very ill. In hospital ill. Kids, if it tastes fizzy, toss it out-learn from his mistakes. Anyway, long before it gets to that point, it can be boiled down to make a concentrated syrup. A few drops will add a sweet, yet tart flavor to dishes, and it is wonderful on pancakes. I like to use it as I did today for baking bread, but it also makes delicious apple cider doughnuts. Still, in my twenties I couldn't see how boiled cider would ever be a pantry staple, and I chalked it up to elderly New Englander memory of long snowed-in winters.
(After an April storm on the farm several years ago)

When I moved to Nebraska in 2001, we relocated from the bustling city to an extremely rural place. "Town" was three miles away, and it only had about 700 people. Any city of reasonable size was at the very least going to be a 40 minute drive. If you could drive, because come winter the odds were pretty good I wouldn't be getting down the 1/4 mile drive to the main road, which would be impassable anyway. At some point each winter, we'd lose power in a storm, so we had to keep supplies, and water as the well was electric. Funny how you rethink boiled cider when the 60 mph wind is tossing around 3 feet of snow on the farm. Thing is, you need to plan ahead-cider is only available for a month or so during the apple harvest-so grab a big pot, some Kilner bottles, and get started now.
(No, you don't have to press your own cider...unless you want to. Great fun for the kids taking a turn at it).

The other bit of American cookery I picked up from the Boston ladies was corn mush. Sophisticates (and Italians) call it, polenta. Made the New England way, plain old cornmeal (corn grits, not cornflour) is used rather than the heavier polenta grits sold to sophisticates (and Italians). It is finer, and does have a tendency to clump as you add it to boiling water-so add slowly and use a heavy whisk rather than a spoon. There-I just saved you several dollars because cornmeal is cheap as dirt (at least in the US) whereas polenta grits are not.

I was thinking about all these long ago learned lessons in household management and cookery yesterday as I put together our evening meal. I have a pile of small sugar pumpkins, and squashes accumulating on my dining room table, but I wasn't sure what to make. I knew I didn't feel like going to the store, so by the time I had the container of cornmeal and bottle of boiled cider in hand, I knew something halfway edible could be thrown together. I owe much of my ease in the kitchen to those long ago friends that took mercy on my ignorance and passed along their thriftiness (some would day penny-pinching) and ability to make-do. I wouldn't expect anyone to follow this recipe to the letter-but there are some techniques you may decide worth applying when it is getting late, and you haven't started cooking. Start-to-finish this took about an hour. Get the pumpkin in the oven first to roast, then you can make the mush. Timing is everything.

Boiled Cider:

1 gallon apple cider

Put cider in a large pot and slowly bring to a boil (watch that it does not boil over). Reduce heat, skim scum that floats to top, and simmer until reduced by 1/3 (ish). At this point, I transfer it to a smaller pan so I don't have to worry about burning it. You'll still need to watch it, but it is easier. You'll want about a pint when all is said and done. You can reduce it much further where it is the thickness of pomegranate molasses, but then that does limit what you can do with it. I like to leave it thin enough to pour easily from a bottle, and if I need it more concentrated, I can always do that later. It does thicken upon standing (apples= pectin) so I wouldn't get too carried away. If it smells like it is burning, but it still looks OK it is time to bottle it. You might not see it, but it is already turning into jelly candy at that point (which is good of course, but something other than what we're aiming for here).
("Nice pumpkins, heh, heh." These pumpkins are too big for roasting. You can, but they are stringy. The smaller pie pumpkins are what you want).

To Roast Pumpkin:

Cut pumpkin in half, and remove the seeds (wash and dry them, then lightly oil, and salt then toast them on a tray at 325 degrees f. for about 20 minutes). Scoop out fibres, and cut pumpkin into wedges. With a sharp knife, score the flesh. In a bowl combine 1/4 cup oil (I like a good corn oil, but olive oil is good too) 1 tablespoon boiled cider, 1 teaspoon smoked paprika, and a good grinding of pepper. Brush generously on pumpkin and place in a 425 degree F. oven for 25 minutes. Baste again, turn wedges, and bake until soft (a butter knife should pierce the flesh easily). Remove to a tray and cool if not serving immediately.

For the Mush:

6 cups boiling water
2 cups cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter

Bring water to boil in a large pot. Slowly whisk in the cornmeal. Reduce the heat to low and stir with a long-handled wooden spoon (trust me, the stuff will hurt if you get splattered with it) occasionally stirring to keep from burning. After about 30 minutes, you should have a firm mush. Remove from the heat, add the butter and stir until melted. Pour it into a greased bowl or a square casserole dish. Let sit 10 minutes before turning out onto a plate. You can eat it as-is, but it is better cut into wedges and fried in a small bit of oil in a hot pan.

What Else is in There?
Lima beans (frozen), yellow hominy grits (tinned), onions, garlic, herbs, oil, and a generous few tablespoons of sweet(not smoked) paprika. After everything has cooked for a bit, and the onions are soft, add 1 cup of water, and then simmer it all gently until the paprika and oil make a sauce. Add 1 small chopped apple at the end if you like.

How Do I Serve it?

Fry the mush, and arrange on a plate. Carefully with a knife remove the skin from the pumpkin and arrange the slices over the polenta. Pour over the beans mixture. Scatter a handful of chopped parsley atop it if you feel fancy.

I Hate Lima Beans!
You can use any bean that suits your taste (black beans with chili powder would be good too) or use a squash instead of a pumpkin, or maple syrup instead of the boiled cider.

I Have Mush Left, What Do I Do?
Eat it for breakfast with molasses, or boiled cider (or maple syrup, etc.) or serve it next day with red sauce and cheese. Tightly wrapped, it should keep several days in the fridge.

I Have a Cold, Will You Bring Me Applesauce?
Maybe, if I don't have to hike three miles in the snow to get it to you.

Hopefully, something here will be useful to you-perhaps not today, but someday. The young people today seem to know their way around the kitchen better than my generation did, so maybe all this has been addressed by cooking blogs already.

Really though, cider time is short in the US-so get on the ball if you plan to make it.

If that isn't the New World on a plate, I don't know what is (corn, beans, squash).


Jayne H said...

Thanks for this very interesting post Goody. It's a while since I cooked polenta but I will have a go with cheaper cornmeal, I like it fried too and your meal looks delicious.

Curtise said...

Thanks you for the translation to help non-Americans! Cider here is always alcoholic. It's what most of us who were teenagers in the 1970s started out drinking, before graduating to beer, wine or spirits! We used to select which of us looked the oldest and send them to the pub's off license to buy said cider, then rendezvous in some out of the ay spot in town to enjoy the illicit delight of underage drinking! Ahh, those were the days...
And corn mush? I had NO idea what that is, but once you said polenta, I get it. Grits - they sound so quintessentially American!
How kind of your friends to hand on their knowledge and experience to you. I remember trying to cook my first roast dinner, struggling with the timings, and wailing to my mother that I would NEVER be able to do it. She laughed and said it was just practice, and of course I now cook the Sunday roast without even thinking about it - everything's ready at the right time, as if by magic (or rather, by 30 years' worth of experience!) xxxx

Goody said...


The "grits" they eat in the south are a dried version of hominy that gets coarsely ground and served like porridge. I hate them. I've tried to like them, but something about the texture (like baby cereal) just puts me off.

Then there's "parched corn" which is also dried, but gets rehydrated and cooked...oh nevermind. You'll just have to come for a visit so I can cook you some corn.

Goody said...


Just make sure it is cornmeal not cornflour or you'll have a sticky mess.

Autumn said...

I've made cornmeal mush before, but I always forget about it. I need to do this just as soon as it is under 90F here (this weekend!!).
I am currently breaking up with gluten and it has been very painful, so this is just the perfect thing at the perfect time.
Oh, the 80's, what a fun learning experience. I did the same thing, at the same time, only here in So Cal with an infant in tow. We survived!

Helga said...

I'm intrigues by this boiled cider! Cider is alcoholic here too, apple juice is not. I happen to have a spoonful of apple cider vinegar everyday in warm water...I'm sure it's all connected!
I couldn't cook worth a damn in my 20's either. I was interested, but pretty hopeless. Oddly, the cooking gene kicked in after my Mama passed, and nowadays I'm ok in the kitchen. Not much of a baker, but I can cook a good meal, mostly Asian or Indian, or Italian. And I love polenta! (Loathe pumpkin though!)
I was an only child, and everything was done for me, which made me rather helpless in the world when I left home! Mamas, teach your kids all the home skills they could possibly need!