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Culinary Discovery: The Tastes of Rhode Island

by Gabriella True

Rhode Island is smallest state in the US nation of states. Yet what it lacks in size is completely made up by its rich history, beautiful architecture, fun festivals, perfect bays and oceans for sailing, fishing and swimming. There are enough open roads and dense woods to explore but don't forget to eat while seeing the sights because Rhode Island is blessed with a unique and delicious cuisine.

The state fish is the striped bass commonly measuring twenty to thirty inches in length and weighing three to ten pounds. If its habitat is favorable, the bass can reach sixty pounds and live up to thirty years. The state fruit is the Rhode Island Greening Apple and as the name implies, it is a yellow green apple. They have a sharp taste retained during cooking so they are perfect for apple pies and apple slumps. Slumps (or grunts in Massachusetts) are stewed fruits topped with a dumpling.

Then there is the all important state drink, coffee milk. It became the official drink in 1993 winning over Del's Frozen Lemonade. The lemonade is delicious and can be found throughout Rhode Island but due to its similarity to an Italian ice and coffee milk's uniqueness, the latter won out. However, Del's should not be missed. Mr. Delucia first made it in 1840 in Naples, Italy. He kept snow frozen in caves all year round so he could mix it with lemons and sugar for a refreshing summer drink. Delucia's son brought the recipe to the US and his great grandson invented a machine that would mass-produce the product with a regular consistency. Franchises for the frozen lemonade can be found across Rhode Island waiting to quench your thirst.

But getting back to Rhode Island's official winner, coffee milk. You've had chocolate milk made with milk and chocolate syrup? Well, coffee milk is the same thing but with coffee syrup. You won't find a bottle of Autocrat's or Eclipse's coffee syrup, the leading brands, outside of Rhode Island. If you are in Rhode Island or surfing the web, pick up a bottle. Simply add 2 tablespoons of coffee syrup to 8 ounces of hot or cold milk. If you add ice cream to coffee milk then you are drinking a "coffee cabinet" or in outsider's terms a coffee milk frappe. But don't say milk shake because the waitress will just shake your coffee milk and not put any ice cream in it.

If there were a state shellfish it would undoubtedly be the clam, especially the quahog which is a very large clam. Quahog derives from the Narragansett Indian name for poquauhock. The scientific name, mercenaria, comes from the Latin meaning wages because Native Americans strung the shells like beads and used them as money or wampum.

Clams come four different ways in Rhode Island: clam cakes, chowder, baked and stuffies. Clam cakes are deep fried fritters the size of golf balls made up of chopped clam and flour. They are often overloaded with grease and so nicknamed 'sinkers' since they sink to the bottom of your stomach. Clam chowder is a New England staple with its creamy, potato base. There are two other varieties: Manhattan, made with a tomato base and the true, authentic Rhode Island version, made from a clear broth with clams in it.

A true sign of the end of summer is the clambake. Usually it's a large gathering of people reaping the benefits of a few companions building a sand oven and steaming clams, mussels, lobsters, corn and potatoes in seaweed under hot rocks all day.

The fourth way to prepare clams is to stuff and bake them. Generally the quahog is used but littleneck clams can be stuffed and are perfect for cocktail parties. Whatever the size, they are usually made by mincing clam meat and mixing it with an onion, breadcrumbs and spices. Oh, and of course clams can always come in the form of steamers, fried strips, and raw.

Are you from New York? Have you ever heard of the New York System Hot Weiner? Well I have lived in New York City for thirty years and had no clue what it was until I spent a few summers in Rhode Island. These Rhode Island dogs are not individual links but are cut from one continuous dog and they do not have casings. Some dogs are actually twenty feet in length. Then the long hot dog is sliced to fit the bun. And if ask for "three all the way" then you will get a hot dog in a bun smothered in a meat sauce flavored with nutmeg, garlic, celery salt and onions.

There is a very high population of Portuguese descendants in Rhode Island. Many breakfast places will serve Portuguese chorizo instead of sausage links. Chorizo is a spicy pork sausage with different flavored with paprika. The most typical Rhode Island breakfast is a big heaping stack of Jonnycakes which look like silver dollar pancakes but made with stone ground white cornmeal. There are versions of Jonnycakes in the Midwest and New Hampshire but those are baked or baked then fried. Rhode Island Jonnycakes are cooked up just like pancakes. Newport County Jonnycakes are thin and crispy while South County Jonnycakes are thick and moist. Either way they are delicious and taste like you would imagine a fried grit but served with butter and maple syrup.

Recipes:

Rhode Island Quahog Chowder
3 pounds red bliss potatoes 1/2-inch dice
Water, to cover
4 teaspoons white pepper
4 teaspoons salt
3/4 pound ground salt pork
1 Spanish onion, diced
2 cups chopped quahogs
2 cups quahog juice
4 teaspoons tablespoon fresh thyme

Place potatoes in a large pot, cover with water by 2 inches. Add salt and pepper, bring to boil then reduce to a simmer. Meanwhile, heat the salt pork in a large skillet, add the onion and saut until the onions are translucent. Then add onions and pork to the simmering potatoes. Then add quahogs, quahog juice, and thyme. Simmer for 30 minutes or until potatoes are cooked through.

Makes: 15 portions

Clam Cakes
2 eggs
1/2 cup clam juice
1/2 cup milk Pepper
1 1/2 cup flour
salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
8 oz. can minced clams
oil for deep frying

Beat eggs until light and frothy in a medium bowl. Add milk and clam juice and stir to combine. Sift flour, baking powder, salt and pepper. Add the minced clams to the flour mixture then add enough of the liquid to make a thick batter. Drop batter one teaspoon at a time into 375 degree oil. The cakes will flip over by themselves once one side is cooked. Drain on paper towels. Serve immediately.

Jonnycakes
1 cup stone-ground cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-1/4 cups boiling water
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

In a medium-size bowl, combine cornmeal and salt. In a thin steady stream, pour boiling water into the cornmeal mixture, stirring constantly. The batter will remain thick but once the water is absorbed, stir in the milk and the batter will be thin. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat and pour in a little of the oil. Pour about 1/4 cup of the batter onto the griddle for each jonnycake. The batter will spread to about 5 inches so don't overcrowd the pan. Cook about 2 minutes on each side or until golden and crisp around edges. If they aren't browning quickly within those two minutes, increase heat to moderately high. Serve with butter and maple syrup.

Makes: 8 servings

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