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Flavors of the Mid-Atlantic

The flavors of the Mid-Atlantic are creatively combined in a Maryland crab and potato lasagna. Photo courtesy of mccormick for chefs. From Chesapeake seafood to Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish traditions, this region has a taste of its own

By Deborah Grossman

Regional fare is built on local geography and the pioneers who settled the region, reinforced by the continual influx of new cooks and teachers. American food is, at heart, a delicious blend of regional cuisines.

In the South, a TV personality like Paula Deen is identified solidly with the region and its cheese grits, but setting the geographic boundaries for Mid-Atlantic flavors is not so simple.

“Calling the region ‘Mid-Atlantic’ is the best you can do to delineate New England from the South,” observes John Shields, chef/owner of Gertrude’s in his native Baltimore, addressing the branding dilemma.

Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania offer a delicious sampling of Mid-Atlantic cuisine. From land specialties like Amish chicken, cheese steaks, fresh corn and peaches to Chesapeake blue crabs, the region is full of flavors to replicate across the country.

Chef Daniel Stern embraces Mid-Atlantic foodways at his two Philadelphia restaurants. R2L, located in a downtown skyscraper, reflects Stern’s well-crafted haute cuisine. But his new MidAtlantic Restaurant & Tap Room in west Philadelphia’s university district reflects the eponymous cuisine instead of his French, fine-dining training.

What motivated Stern to open the more casual MidAtlantic, where he riffs on the Pennsylvania Dutch and Philadelphia traditions of sausage- and pretzel-making while creating new flavor combinations such as crab scrapple? “There is nothing like actually celebrating the craft of cooking,” he explains. “And these items are very much grounded in, and inspired by, [regional] techniques and flavors that have lived through generations.”

Bordering the Atlantic Ocean, Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay, the Mid-Atlantic seasons are relatively mild, but the winters are cold. The area was settled by the Dutch, followed by the Swedes and Finns and then Quakers and Amish of Germanic-Swiss origin.

German settlers brought their culinary traditions to Eastern Pennsylvania in the 17th and 18th centuries. Later, an influx of Italians, Jews, Irish and others influenced the gastronomic landscape.

To research the food for the MidAtlantic Tap Room, Stern visited Lancaster, Pa., the epicenter of Amish country. He read books such as William Woys Weaver’s “Country Scrapple” and “Sauerkraut Yankees.”

He also was familiar with Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, one of the country’s oldest urban farmers’ markets, operational since 1861. The number of retail outlets categorized as Pennsylvania Dutch outnumbers the other segments by a large margin. Many of their products are poultry- or meat-related and have earned a reputation for farm-fresh flavor.

In Philadelphia, at Square 1682 restaurant, named for the year William Penn established Rittenhouse Square defining the city, the menu honors the area’s Amish heritage. The fall offerings included roasted and confit Amish chicken with whole-grain mustard spätzle, oven-roasted tomatoes, mâche and morel mushrooms. At Chelsea Tavern,  a 45-minute drive south of Philadelphia in Wilmington, Del., owner Joseph Van Horn menus roasted Amish chicken breast with grilled asparagus, roasted grape tomatoes and Sauvignon Blanc pan jus.

Mid-Atlantic chefs take advantage of their local produce, such as Jersey tomatoes, Delaware peaches and Maryland’s Eastern Shore Silver Queen corn. At the Hotel du Pont’s Green Room in Wilmington, Del., Executive Chef Keith Miller serves leek-and-Jersey-corn bisque in the summer with truffled honey and elegant corn sprouts from ARC Greenhouses in Shiloh, N.J.

Mushrooms from nearby Kennett Square, Penn., the “Mushroom Capital of the World” spark flavor ideas for both Miller and Stern. House-made mushroom ketchup, says Stern, is a delicious labor of love.

In a play on a beloved Pennsylvania Dutch item, Chelsea Tavern’s Van Horn serves house-made pretzels. But he adds a comfort-pastry twist by serving “pretzel crullers.” The full-flavored cruller sticks are paired with whole-grain mustard and queso poblano.

Pretzels and mustard as a quintessential East Coast heritage pairing are identified as one of the “Top 10 classic combos” by Flavor & The Menu. Despite the dispute over the origin being Philadelphia, Trenton, N.J., or Utica, N.Y., MidAtlantic’s Stern claims the pretzel as a local heritage food and pairs it with house-made ketchup and barley mustard.

Pretzels are getting more play on mainstream menus across the country; Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill features a pretzel appetizer. The chain’s Pretzel Bones are described as “a basket of lightly buttered and salted Bavarian soft pretzel sticks served with sweet honey mustard, creamy queso and robust garlic-Parmesan dipping sauces.”

For his Root Beer Sticky Buns, Chef Daniel Stern riffs on a Pennsylvania Dutch treat with regional flavors. Photo courtesy of midatlantic restaurant & tap room. SCRAPPLE CRAZY
Scrapple is proudly Pennsylvania Dutch in origin and an early-American pork product. Scraps of pork were cooked, mixed with cornmeal mush and baked in a loaf pan and then pan-fried. Len King, senior research chef, McCormick For Chefs, in Hunt Valley, Md., defines scrapple as “like paté, but fried.”

Van Horn dresses up the humble pork mixture, fried to a crisp, in “The Dirty” sandwich, served along with a grass-fed beef patty, smoked bacon, fried egg, roasted pepper relish and American cheese.

At MidAtlantic, Stern pays homage to this pork classic in a scrapple sandwich with his other house-cured meats and sausage offerings. But the creative concept of his flavor-packed crab and vegetarian scrapple sandwiches could be incorporated in other Americana menus.

Crispy-fried on the outside, the crab-based, scrapple-like cake comprises barley and kasha (buckwheat), crab, crab reduction, house-made mushroom ketchup, tarragon, and Old Bay seasoning. A vegetarian version sans crab is another bestseller.

Whereas traditional scrapple may remain a niche foodstuff despite menu variations, the Philly cheese steak has national appeal. Taking the cue from Pat’s Steaks, the original Philly cheese-steak inventor in 1930, the classic sandwich features thinly sliced, sautéed rib-eye and melted cheese on an Amoroso-brand soft, Italian roll. The purists may layer on Cheese Whiz, American or provolone, but this regional specialty scores with patrons in many guises.

The cheese steak gets gourmet treatment in Mid-Atlantic territory at Krazy Kat’s restaurant at the Inn at Montchanin, near Wilmington, Del. Executive Chef Donny Merrill prepares an upscale cheese-steak slider with grilled filet, smoked Gouda, spinach and caramelized onions with a side of gaufrettes (latticed potato wafers cooked waffle-style).

Many multi-unit groups build on the cheese steak’s Mid-Atlantic flavor cachet. The Cheesecake Factory puts its California-based imprint on the classic by replacing the Amoroso Italian roll with a San Francisco sourdough loaf and grilling rather than sautéing the rib-eye.

“And at Grand Lux Café, we once again stepped slightly out of the box and created our Cheese Steak Spring Rolls,” says The Cheesecake Factory’s Corporate Chef Robert Okura.

However, “at our Philadelphia location, we use Amoroso rolls,” he notes. “Our guests there refused to accept it prepared any other way.”

Nothing says Mid-Atlantic cuisine more than Chesapeake blue crabs. The crustaceans are the centerpiece of Shields’ menu at Gertrude’s, starring in the popular Miss Jean’s Red Crab Soup, a traditional vegetable-based Maryland preparation with backfin crabmeat. As for crab cakes, Miss Shirley’s Eastern Shore version with crab, light mayonnaise, lemon juice, butter and bread crumbs is a bestseller. Shields also prepares a crab cake du jour and offers a range of creative sauces to accompany.

Shields showcases other regional seafood that can be menued across the country: Chesapeake Bay rockfish and “single fry” oysters from Chincoteague, Va., dusted in cornmeal and served with rémoulade sauce.

The Hotel du Pont’s Green Room presents another Mid-Atlantic specialty, softshell crabs. The appetizer surrounds the soft-crunchy crab with a textural and flavor contrast of fresh beans, Belgian endive, lemon chips and basil oil.

Chef Miller’s Crab and Fontina Melt offers an unusual flavor twist for chefs to consider as an alternative to the tuna melt. Miller tops toasted brioche with colossal crabmeat, fontina cheese, port reduction, herb oil and micro greens.

When it’s time for dessert, Mid-Atlantic chefs model how to sweeten up their menus with regional produce and products.

Miller takes full advantage of local Delaware peaches at the Hotel du Pont with a summer  portfolio of peach desserts. Shields also goes creative with peaches with a local specialty cake with yeasted dough pushed flat and topped with thinly sliced peaches. The cake is baked and then brushed with sugar to create a caramel-esque glaze.

And what’s more Mid-Atlantic than the Philly Butterscotch Bread Pudding at Stern’s MidAtlantic? “The dessert is inspired by Butterscotch Krimpets from Tasty Kakes, made here in Philadelphia by Tasty Baking Co. We use Krimpets in the making of the bread pudding,” says Stern.

A student of local history, he also notes that root beer was first produced by chemist Charles Hires in Philadelphia.

“Since sticky buns are a common treat among the Pennsylvania Dutch, we decided to flavor our sticky buns with root beer, in place of the more traditional honey or cinnamon-spiced sticky buns,” says Stern.

Whether chefs stick to traditional regional specialties or riff on blends of regional products, applying a cuisine’s ingredients, techniques and traditions offers new menu options with American-regional cachet.


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