The title of John Shield’s latest book, The New Chesapeake Kitchen, refers to more than just the cuisine. The book, much like my conversation with Shields as chronicled in these past five posts, captures the changes in the Chesapeake region, including a shift in demographics. The rise of Latinos in the community can be felt in the crabbing workforce, the kitchen staff at restaurants and all those small businesses that have replaced decades-old mom-and-pop shops. It’s very appropriate to end the series with a look at the impact of Latinos in the area and Shield’s plans for the future.
Buen Provecho Amigos: So, tell me about some of the folks that you know—I’m of Hispanic background. I was pleasantly surprised to see some Hispanic cuisine in your book because as you said this region has changed.
Shields: Well the crab picking world is driven by Hispanics. And this year we couldn’t get crab because of the policy issues around immigration. And so, crab meat wholesale was going for 50 dollars a pound instead of 18 or 22 or 25. Locally we get a better price, but the industry had nobody to pick crab meat.
Buen Provecho Amigos: I understand that. I had a friend of mine actually host a crab feast last August and her partner basically came back and confirmed that a bushel of crab is much more expensive than they thought and they’re having a tough time getting pickers.
Shields: Yes, it’s been difficult. But in the communities, all along the Eastern Shore and all of rural Chesapeake, it’s hugely Hispanic now. I mean the grocery stores are Hispanic. So many little, little, tiny restaurants and even my kitchen is very Hispanic. You know, we have a huge, good core group from mostly El Salvador. Yes, and we’ve been together for years. They’re like my brothers and sisters and my mother. Mama—her name is Maria—and Maria has been with me for 19 years. She’s the soul of the kitchen. And so, I have number of recipes from my guys. Mama even did one in here. She’s known for her tamale. So, I said to Mama we could do something with seafood. So first she you looked at me like “I think you’ve lost your mind” and then we started talking about it.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Mama Maria’s Seafood Tamales.
Shields: And she came up with a thing where you know, instead of using water with the masa harina or a chicken stock, she uses a seafood stock we make and use that with the masa. We do the whole thing with the tamale where we take the crab, or whatever; we sauté that and then when we’re making the tamale. We put the seafood all down the center of it and then wrap it, steam it, just like you would usually do but it has this wonderful beautiful perfect thing with it. It takes some time, so we only do it, you know part, part time. So, we’ll start doing it like November, December, January because Mama always does them at the holidays.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Yeah. It’s a big holiday thing.
Shields: It’s a huge thing. So, any way so we do that and that obviously is part of a regional cuisine. People sometimes get very static with it and you cannot because populations change over these years. I mean we have migrations. We’re all migrants. My family came during the famine in Ireland. A lot of my family died in the famine. And the ones that survived came here. They brought a whole different way of cooking and sensibility about food and it continues to this day, and it will always continue. It’s not gonna stop. When somebody says to me what’s a regional cuisine, I say take a look at the terroir. Look where it is and look what grows there. Look what is coming from the water or the ponds or the lakes. This will give you the ingredients and then you look at the people who have settled there. And they will then cook their way to a cuisine. And by people commingling, intermarrying, living next door to one another, things change. There’s an old traditional thing here in Maryland called the St. Mary’s County Stuffed Ham.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Stuffed ham? I’ve heard of it.
Shields: It’s very, I find, that it’s really interesting because the ham itself is really a fresh piece of pork. It’s the hind leg of the animal—that’s a ham. And so, it’s always corned or brined. That was a very English thing because that’s how they travel. They were taking over the world. Ham would be preserved in barrels on ships. So, they corned them. That’s how it was done. So, okay, so now the English come over here and they start setting up plantations and then they bring in slaves. The slaves come from an extraordinary agrarian society. A lot of the slaves were in the West Indies for a little bit of time, and then brought forcibly here. And now they’re cooking for the English, so the stuffed ham is filled with onions, kale or green— all kind of greens—cabbage, mustard seed, hot peppers. So, you got quite a number of things in there that the English were not used to eating, right. The greens—they didn’t eat much greens or collard greens—and they were highly seasoned. So, what they do is they take the corned ham and they’re using like a boning knife and going down into the ham and then they’re chopping up all these vegetables. They don’t cook them; they chop them up and they stuck them into the ham and then they essentially wrap it all like in a cheesecloth and they boil it or poach it for many hours. They let it cool and then they slice it very thin and it’s like marble all the way through. But this is a dish that could have only manifested itself because of the number of cultures and a number of things that were being grown all in that region. So again, you know any kind of regional cuisine anywhere I think in the world is constantly evolving and breathing . . .
Buen Provecho Amigos: Yes. . .
Shields: And morphing and growing and so, so hopefully in the book it shows a little bit of that.
Buen Provecho Amigos, that was exciting because I believe you have said with your previous cookbooks you focus more on the historical technique.
Shields: Yes, yeah.
Buen Provecho Amigos: And there’s something very interesting about that too.
Shields: Of course, our cities, our history.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Yeah.
Shields: But I wanted to approach it a little bit in a different way by keeping one foot in the past and another in the future and also just seeing where all this is going. So anyway, that’s how The New Chesapeake Kitchen came about. I thought it started thinking about it making notes like 10 years ago, and I’ve been working hard on it for like three years and—you know starts and stops—you know.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Yeah
Buen Provecho Amigos: So, I know at one point you had a PBS series.
Shields: Being in this business, I’ve done a lot of television series and radio. I had two different series. I had Chesapeake Bay Cooking and also have one where I traveled all over the coast of United States. It was called Coastal Cooking with John Shields.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Yes, I do remember that.
Shields: But now I’m not doing any of those shows and I don’t really have any desire to do too much more. It’s just a lot of work and it’s a lot of traveling.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Have you thought about doing a podcast?
Shields: I am. Also, I’m talking to some people at public radio about doing kind of a comprehensive show with WIPR here in Baltimore. Maybe with WAMU and then WHRO in Virginia Beach. We could do one show, but it would have a reach to everywhere. So, you know, like we could do a call-in show, maybe two times a month, I would do it out of here [Gertrude’s], WAMU in Washington, DC and then I’d go down to Hampton Roads and do it there. So that it’s not centered in one specific place; that we get a really nice mix of ideas from all over the Bay, hear what’s going on in different parts of the Bay.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Yeah, I think that’s pretty cool.
Shields: So that’s what I’m thinking about maybe doing. It could be just a podcast, or it could be a radio broadcast with a podcast component.
Buen Provecho Amigos: I think NPR has a great model. I mean, it sounds like you’re doing it with the local affiliate.
Buen Provecho Amigos: I am sure NPR and local affiliates can duplicate this. They have a great model where their broadcast shows are repurposed as podcasts and there’s more content. You know, I don’t recall exactly how long Coastal Cooking was on but now you have the support of the web. So that’s all additional content, and then you have social media and Facebook Live which is conducive to doing a 10-minute live cooking session. There’s just so much that can be done with it.
Shields: So that’s kind of what I’m mulling for my next stage of my golden years, you know, because I’m pushing 70.
Buen Provecho Amigos: You have a lot of life left.
Shields: Yeah . . . Julia went to 90 so you know . . .
Buen Provecho Amigos: And I know that you just transitioned to a new executive chef.
Shields: Yeah, and he’s been with me for 10 years. I gave him more responsibility and it gives me a little chance to go do some of the things that I think are important for rebuilding the local food economy.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Well, I certainly appreciate your time. I really want to thank you for your time.
Shields: Next time you’re up and you come and have lunch with me.
Buen Provecho Amigos: I think I will, and I might bring a friend also.
Shields: That would be lovely.
Mama Maria’s Seafood Tamales
While tamales originated in Mexico, tamales are found across Latin America with certain variations. In Ecuador, where my mother was born and raised, plantain leaves are used in lieu of corn husks and the plantain flesh is used as the base for the filling, which can be either savory or sweet. I particularly like the addition of crab meat and Old Bay Seasoning to this recipe.
Makes about 24 tamales
Tamale Seafood Filling
2 cups diced steamed or grilled shrimp
1 lb backfin or claw crab meat, picked over for shells
4 tablespoons melted butter
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
3 tablespoons minced chives
1/2 onion, peeled and chopped
1 tomato, peeled, cored and chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon ground cumin
4 cups of masa harina
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
Warm water, as needed
1 1/2 cups of lard or solid vegetable shortening
2 cups (plus or minus) Fish stock
1 (8-oz) package large, dried corn husks, soaked in warm water for several hours
Prepare the seafood filling.
Place the onion, tomato, bell pepper, garlic and cumin in a blender or a food processor to create a sofrito. Blend into a smooth mixture, place in a bowl and set aside.
In a bowl, mix the masa harina, salt Old Bay seasoning and baking powder together. Slowly stir some warm water until the mixture is somewhat crumbly.
Place the lard or shortening in a mixer and beat until somewhat smooth. Then little by little, add the masa harina mixture to the shortening. Add stock, 1/4 cup of a time until a nice soft dough is formed. You don’t want it wet and runny. It should be similar to a cake batter and should drip very slowly from a spoon. Again, not runny. Fold in the sofrito into the masa harina mixture.
Make the tamales one husk at a time. Drain the husk and pat dry, place it on a work board, and then spread about 3 tablespoons of the masa mixture in the center of the bottom end of the husk (the straight-edged side), spreading it into a rectangle along the bottom half of the husk, about 1/2-inch thick. Leave about 1/4-inch empty around the sides of the husk. Put 3 tablespoons or so of the seafood mixture down the center of the masa rectangle. Wrap by folding the rectangle in half and bringing the right side of the dough over the filling to make a packet. Tie the husks with kitchen string or cut-off strips of husk.
In a steamer or a large Dutch oven with a steamer rack, pour boiling water up to the top of the rack. Place a couple of unfilled husks on top of the rack. Stack the tamales, seam side down. Cover the pot and steam at a constant heat for one hour and 15 minutes. Turn off heat and let the tamales rest in the steamer for 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. An option is to serve with a chili sauce of your choosing, mixed with a little sour cream, on the side for dipping.