by: Chef Jim Berman
"They are a hash smoking culture" Robin Williams quipped, "and anybody who is a friend of the hooka [hash smoking pipe], knows Pop Tarts are exactly what you want". Robin Williams was explaining the reasoning why hunger relief included Pop Tarts in the air-drops for the Afghans. And, I thought, naively, why not just drop hash? How hard could it be for our Army cooks to whip up some hash? They are a talented bunch, preparing thousands of meals a day, surely they could muster the forces necessary to get the potatoes peeled and meat diced to make a massive quantity of Relief Hash. Why do we need to supply Pop Tarts&. Oh, not that kind of hash! I am a cook and every now and again it takes some time to get food off of my brain. It got me thinking, though. Hash. What an underappreciated, unexplored fundamental component of American food.
My first experience with homemade hash came about while working at a roadhouse in northern New Mexico. The owner was insistent on making his self-proclaimed famous Red Flannel Hash for St. Patrick's Day. He chopped russet potatoes, corned beef, canned beets and yellow onions and mixed everything together with some seasonings that I do not recall as well as some cooked mashed potatoes, as a glue to hold the mass together, I suppose. He mixed and mixed and mixed about 5 gallons of hash in a bowl intended for about 3 gallons of ingredients. Some gobbets of hash would make a leap towards immortality; blood-red beet stained chunks of potato became suspect of gravity as they were ejected from the much-too-small bowl. But, the boss insisted on retrieving the excess and returning it to the bowl, which would not have been a bad idea, had the amalgam actually not fallen on the floor.
"It's hash," he chuckled "nobody will ever know!" as my eyes drifted upon his scooping up a rather large clod from the black, rubberized mat.
Fast-forward two years, one month and 2 thousand miles to the east. I had just returned to the east coast to work at a historical restaurant-inn located along the banks of the Delaware River. Two days on the job and the place burned to the ground. My wife and I were living at a bed and breakfast, so I joined the first restaurant willing to take me in. It just happened to be my luck that Corned Beef Hash was on the breakfast menu at the Holiday Inn. When the hash was set free from its can, it had those wonderful ribs of the vessel impressed on the monolithic mass that gently glides from the vacuum seal of the Alpo-like state from which it resided. The gelatinous cylinder was comprised of microscopically diced potatoes with near perfect precision nestled amongst morsels of red flecks of overly salted beef. It was smeared into a stainless steel pan and steamed. With a poof of vapor, the graying mass emerged from the steamer lifeless, dull and dreary like yesterday's oatmeal. Surprisingly, people ordered that stuff, usually with two eggs poached and placed on top of the gooey heap. It did take on flavor when an insistent customer asked to have their portion browned on the griddle. I tasted a crumb that stayed behind. The browning of the meat-potato combination took on a flavor that was not expected. Sure, there were protein and starch elements present, but still there was something to be said for the mixture. The appeal was intriguing enough to try my own mixtures. Not, however, intriguing enough to try it anytime soon.
It was not until I was put to task for a demanding menu at a catering venue in hoity Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. It was at the Brandywine River Museum that I was told in no uncertain terms that I was about to embark on an event that would determine my fate at this particular establishment.
"This is the dinner of your life," my client told me. Rather weighty for a 25 year-old chef of $1 million account with less than 6 months on the job. I was told to formulate a menu for twenty guests that would ensure that there would be something for everyone to relish. These were "cultured folks" I was told.
"James, they will know good food. Deliver!" the micromanaging client told me.
I had assembled a spectrum of ingredients from all points of the earth of the highest quality to entice this audience, I had thought. My only sticking point was a starch component to grace the plate along the Brandy Varnished Venison Tenderloin. For some reason, unbeknownst to me, my hash light flickered on. Perhaps because I was, earlier in the day, poking fun of the audience for which my fate was subject and telling my wife that these characters would probably be happy with a plate of chicken and dumplings from any one of the hash houses that dot the interstate. Up from the dust that defines an icon of contemporary American food, the hash house known as a diner, greasy spoon, dive or drive-up, I had a revelation. I would elevate hash to the fine dining experience that these folks were expecting. It went something like this:
1lb. Applewood smoked boar bacon, diced into ¼" strips
2lbs. Red skin potatoes, ¼" dice
½ cup, leeks, white bottoms well rinsed and small diced
Fresh thyme, salt, black pepper
½-1 cup, all purpose flour
1 cup, whole milk
Sauté the bacon over medium-high heat in a large pan. Once the fat has been rendered from the bacon, add the potatoes and cook until just tender, nut mush. Add the leeks and begin to season with the thyme, salt and pepper. As the leeks begin to soften, stir in the flour until the fat from the bacon is well absorbed and begins to color. Stir in the milk. Cook until the mixture has become thickened and the potatoes and bacon maintain their respective identities. Remove and cool. When ready to serve, brown individual portions in additional bacon fat or butter. Spoon into biscuit rings for presentation-worthy appeal or merely dollop on a plate as garnish for the main course.
Well, the meal went over splendidly and this cook kept his job, for the time anyhow. It was, however, a surprise to me that an item this easy to prepare and accommodating to presentation is so infrequently utilized. I began my wonderment of hash; who was using it and where else can I find it? And, perhaps more importantly, why?
Ranhoffer's Epicurean mentions no fewer than 15 varieties, distinct from what I had yet to experience. Well, sort of. His Tenderloin of Beef Hash is bound with mushrooms and espagnole sauce, rather than with potatoes and any evidence of cream. His Hashed Chicken does call for a béchamel sauce as well as shallots, but the potato comes later. The potato is more of a border for the hash to be encompassed while "bestrewn with bread crumbs, poured butter over and baked in a hot oven" . Alas, there is the browning that produces the wonderful Maillard reaction to brown the protein-sugar molecules. But does hash have to come under a microscope? Do these mixtures need careful examination or are they as indigenous to our culture as are big band music and Saturday morning cartoons? I need to know if unraveling hashes is important or just knowing that they exist is enough.
I went back to colonial America to get answers. It seems that, without much stretch of imagination, hashes were a result of left over meat and potatoes from the night before. In American Food Evan Jones revealed the origin of a hash made from clams. Certainly clams are a far cry from anything we can think of as a leftover from the night before, given their perishable state, but you see, the clams were used by New Englanders that made their way towards the northwest that were unable to procure corned beef for their hash. And even the Red Flannel hash that I was witness to in New Mexico, Jeff Smith says, is in fact from New England. The namesake is for the red flannel pajamas the folks up north wore in cold winters and the color is from the beets in the dish. From The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American, Smith's take on this Hash:
1 ½ cups cooked corned beef
½ cup diced salt pork
1 ½ cups coarsely chopped cooked beets
2 ½ cups peeled, boiled and diced potatoes
1 medium, yellow onion diced
1 Tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
¼ cup half cream, half milk
Salt, pepper to taste
¼ cup bacon drippings or oil for frying
Drain the beets well. Mix all the ingredients, except the bacon drippings or oil, in a large bowl. Heat a 10-inch frying pan. Place the bacon drippings or oil in the pan and add the mixture. Press it down a bit so that it forms a nice even cake. Cook over low heat until the bottom is brown. Remove from the pan place on a plate. Cover the cake with a second plate and turn it over. Slide it back into the pan. Brown the second side and serve. Interestingly enough, as I try to uncover more about this amalgam, Smith draws an interesting connection between English "Bubble and Squeak" and its New England Hash cousin, whereas the cabbage is omitted in the States.
When I looked around, locally I found a dish that passed for a hash without convention. The meat is pork, shredded not diced and mixed with scallions, kernels of corn and a sweet barbecue sauce. Something between Oriental Mushu pork and Southern pulled pork barbecue was spooned into little corn cakes. I even came across a muddle of cooked crab, Mornay sauce and chunks of buttered, toasted bread bound with cornmeal and pan-fried as a sort of Chesapeake Crab Hash. Bill and Cheryl Jamison do well to offer up some other contemporary takes on hash in A Real American Breakfast. They note that chilled meats to start, the pieces cut into small, uniform shape and the use of a cast iron skillet are good parameters to follow. And rather than making a connection with English fare, the Jamisons offer yet another derivative in a capitolade; a chicken previously cooked and reheated in a mushroom sauce with stock, cream and herbs studded with wine and then gratineéd. This preparation smacks of French fare, given the wine and cream; European, yes, but a hop away from Bubble and Squeak.
There is even mention of a Thanksgiving leftover hash, that I was sure I had invented. Remove the remaining meat from the cooked turkey and pass it through the food processor with some cold mashed potatoes and stuffing. Add a bit of leftover gravy to soften the mixture. I patty out the hash and brown in it a butter. If you are so inclined, garnish the hash with leftover cranberry sauce.
So it seems that hash has been around, in form or another, for quite some time. Perhaps, the dish goes back to the colonies. Or all the way back to England. Or even fanciful French fare can lay claim to the roots of our hash. Hash houses be damned; hash should conjure whetted appetites of comfort, restored belief in American fare and creativity by the namesake hash slinger. Alas, hash is not just corned beef and potatoes. Nor is it reminiscent of always being in the form of canned cranberry sauce, with the can-forming shape and tell-tale ridges. No, naysayer, it can be expression of the hard working cook rather than just showcasing the ingredient. Refreshing, actually, in a time where the ingredients and their respective description can fill a paragraph on menu. Merely "Hash $2.95" speaks volumes to me.