I grew up on the West Coast and moved to the Boston area when I was 19. I was adding to my cooking repertoire even then, as my personal cookbook was pretty lean and primarily based on the bland farm cooking of my grandmothers (trust me…you would not want to replicate most of my mother’s attempts at cooking!). One of my in-laws served a Washday supper one evening, explaining that she had been out in the garden all day and this meal needed little attention while she was busy doing something else.
When asked, she explained the name of the dish thus: In the old days, women washed by hand and they heated the water on the stove. Some clothes, primarily whites, were actually boiled in a large tin-lined copper tank called a clothes boiler. This meant the stove, which was usually coal, wood, or oil fired, would be using fuel all day for laundry, and the housewife’s attention would be taken up by the washing.
The Washday Supper was a meal conceived out of necessity: the woman didn’t have the time to actually cook a real meal, and by cooking a chunk of meat all day on the back of the already hot stove, she saved both fuel and time…the vegetables, which cook much more quickly than meat, are added shortly before serving.
This is my variation of the Washday supper, also known as a New England Boiled Dinner, that I learned from a lady who did her laundry in a wringer washer…an all day project…and served this delicious meal weekly.
This is also a frugal meal. A family of four should be able to eat two full dinners from this, and any leftover vegetables and liquid can be put through the blender and used as the basis for Ham and Split Pea Soup…three delicious meals for a family of four out of just one chunk of ham…it doesn’t get much cheaper than this!
Washday Supper (New England Boiled Dinner)
1 picnic ham (smoked shoulder, Boston Butt Ham, or very large smoked hocks)
1 large onion (or 2 small), coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 bay leaves, bruised or broken
½ tsp peppercorns
1 tsp marjoram, dried
1 tsp thyme, dried
1 cup white wine
6 large carrots, cut into large chunks
4 large potatoes, cut into large chunks
½ bunch of celery, including leaves, cut into 3” to 4” sticks
1 large onion (or 2 small), cut into quarters
6 white turnips, quartered (optional)
1 head of cabbage, quartered through the core, then each quarter halved through the core
Soak ham, fully covered with water, overnight to leach out excess salt. Discard water in the morning. (You may need to put a plate on top of the ham to keep it submerged.)
To have ready to eat by 6 pm, the ham must go on the stove no later than noon. Place ham in deep kettle, add wine and seasoning, then fill to ⅔ full with water. It is OK if the ham is not fully covered, as you will turn it over half way through the cooking process. Add crushed garlic and chopped onion, cover and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to simmer and cook, covered, for 3 hours. Check periodically and add more water if needed.
At 3 hours, turn ham over. Replace lid and continue cooking for at least another 2 hours. Check periodically and add more water if needed. Ham is ready when you can stick a fork into the meat, twist it, and the meat comes away in flakes.
If the pot is not large enough to add the vegetables, you must remove the ham. Put it in a ceramic bowl that you have heated by rinsing in hot water, and cover with a plate. This will allow the meat to rest while keeping it warm. Into the pot liquid add potatoes, carrots, the quartered onion and celery. Boil for 20 minutes, then add turnips and cabbage.
Continue to cook until the vegetables are fork tender, then remove to heated serving dishes.
Serve with mustard for the ham (I like a grainy brown mustard) and butter for the veg. It’s a tasty meal!
Photo by BlueLotus, Flickr