I cooked all afternoon today. When HWMBO came home from work and smelled the delicious odour from the kitchen, he asked what it was. I told him “One of my mother’s favourites—New England Boiled Dinner.” He changed for dinner and when he sat down, and took a bite, he asked me “Is this shredded duck?” I smiled, “No, it’s beef.” When a Chinese man mistakes your beef for shredded duck it’s quite a compliment.
I hadn’t made a New England Boiled Dinner for years—perhaps as many as 20 years. While the beef was boiling, I was pottering around the house when the most delicious odour started to waft around the kitchen. I believe that one of the greatest aids to memory and reminiscence is odour. I closed my eyes for a minute and was transported back to fall and winter Sundays at home in Marblehead. The moist, warm smell brought me back to my mother’s kitchen, when the beef was boiling away and she’d ask me to peel and cut the vegetables.
When I was a kid the New England Boiled Dinner was a relatively easy cold-weather Sunday lunch. You could put it on the stove, turn the heat down to very low, and go to church. When you came back, and peeled and boiled the vegetables, you had your dinner.
After about 1965, boiled dinners began to get a bad rap. “Tasteless”, “unpalatable”, “soggy” were some of the adjectives people hurled at them. For some, Sunday brunch became the dinner of choice. Around 11 or noon you’d gather at the local restaurant for a Mimosa or a Cosmopolitan and some light finger food or Asian fusion cuisine. Others had no time to cook complicated meals on Sunday, as activities other than slow digestion took over Sunday afternoons.
But we kids loved our New England Boiled Dinners. We had nothing to do on Sunday afternoon except to visit Grandma and Grandpa, and either Mom cooked one for Sunday lunch, or Grandma cooked one for Sunday dinner. They are not overloaded with salt, and the flavour of the meat and the vegetables really comes through.
I saw a beef brisket on sale in the local supermarket, and thought, “Time to try a boiled dinner.” Here’s how to go about it.
Depending on how many people you want to feed, you should get between 2-3 lbs. of beef brisket. You can use corned beef brisket, but it will be saltier and you may wish to soak it beforehand to remove some of the salt. If you do use corned beef brisket, put on your green top and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, because you will then have made corned beef and cabbage.
Cut a few slits in the meat and place an entire peeled clove of garlic in each slit—the more the merrier.
Place your brisket in a large pot of water with a peeled onion. Toss in some whole peppercorns. If using regular beef brisket, toss in around a teaspoon of salt. This is one dish (corned beef excepted) that is difficult to oversalt, but it’s always better to put in less and then add some to the plate.
Now bring it to a boil, watching carefully so that it doesn’t boil over. When it starts to boil, turn it down to a simmer (bubbling, not foaming). Some scum will rise to the top. It’s best to skim at first and then ignore the rest as you’ll get rid of most of it later. Simmer for around 3-4 hours, covered.
Now prepare your vegetables. Peel around 1 lb of potatoes, half a dozen carrots, and around 1/2 a large rutabaga. The rutabaga goes by lots of names—you may wish to look at its Wikipedia article to ensure you get the right vegetable. We used to call it a turnip in New England, while here in England it goes by the name swede. Elsewhere it is called a yellow turnip. Whatever you call it, it’s plentiful in the shops at this time of year and is milder than the white turnip. We never used white turnip in a boiled dinner when I was a kid, but if you like them, you can peel one or two for your boiled dinner.
Cut the vegetables into bitesize pieces and put them in bowls of water. If you want to put onions in, peel around 3 medium-size onions and add them to a bowl.
Meanwhile, after around 3-4 hours of simmering, transfer your brisket to a plate, cover it with aluminum foil, and place it in a barely-warm oven to rest while the vegetables are boiling.
Sieve the water from the pot into a bowl to remove the onion, the peppercorns, and a goodly portion of the scum. Pour the water back into the stewpot, drain the vegetables, and put them into the stewpot. Trim a medium cabbage and cut it into quarters and add it to the pot. Bring the pot to a boil, and then turn it down and boil until all the vegetables are cooked through.
It’s necessary to make gravy for this one. Some people use some of the water from the pot, but I’m not in favour of that. Instead, I make it like this. First, melt some butter in a saucepan, maybe two tablespoons. Do not let it burn or boil. Take around 2-3 tablespoons of regular flour and add it to the liquid butter, little by little, stirring it around continuously over a very slow fire. Sooner or later, the mixture will change to a batter-like consistency. That is the signal that the butter has combined with all the flour it will take. Immediately start adding beef stock to the flour-butter mixture, which in French cooking is (I believe) referred to as a roux. Add a little stock and stir it around until the roux absorbs it. Then add more stock and stir it in. While this will not necessarily avoid lumps in your gravy, it will make them less likely and, the slower you add the stock, the smoother the gravy is apt to be.
Stir the gravy in a figure-8 motion while adding the stock. You should add around 1-1/2 cups, maybe 2 cups of stock. While it’s stirring, the flour in the roux is cooking and the grains are expanding. This thickens the gravy. There is a magic moment when the gravy-to-be changes from a thin liquid with some butter and flour in it into gravy.
If you want onion gravy, or mushroom gravy, sauté sliced or quartered mushrooms (or onions) in a little bit of butter. Cover the saucepan for a while to let the liquid come out of the mushrooms. Add the mushrooms or onions to the finished gravy and stir to combine.
When the vegetables are nearly done, transfer the beef to a serving platter and cut it into pieces. It will probably not slice cleanly, as it is extremely tender and moist. Do your best when cutting it into pieces. Then drain the vegetables and surround the beef on the platter with the vegetables. Serve with gravy, mustard, and prepared horseradish on the side. My Dad used to collect horseradish roots from the woods around Marblehead, grate them and preserve them in vinegar, then sell the prepared horseradish around town. It would take the top of your head off. It was great. Failing that, prepared horseradish or horseradish sauce will have to do.
I can’t guarantee that your family will mistake it for shredded duck. However, it will stick to their ribs, as my Mom used to say, and perhaps in years to come it will give them memories of good authentic tasty food just like those I’ve remembered today.