Chef Barry Maiden (photo, above) of the Hungry Mother restaurant in Kendall Square was excited about the new catfish. It was just in: wild-caught blue catfish from the Rappahannock River in Virginia, his home state.
“As of tonight, it’s on the menu!”
If you’re a fan of traditional Southern cooking, or of good eating in general, Hungry Mother, located at 233 Cardinal Medeiros Avenue (http://www.hungrymothercambridge.com), would naturally be your place to take Mom on Mother’s Day for a dinner of fried catfish—provided you have a reservation already. But be warned -- although it's a welcoming kind of place, the dining room is already full up for Sunday.
Maiden was working alongside the kitchen staff when I stopped in Wednesday afternoon. Hungry Mother opens at five, but his co-owners in the business -- Rachel Miller-Munzer, her husband Alon Munzer, and John Kessen -- were already busy out front with details of settings, seating, reservations, and the serious wine and beer list.
Maiden stepped into the cooler and came out with a hefty slab of the firm white-fleshed fish to show me.
“The texture and the flavor are just wonderful – very fresh-tasting,” he said happily.
The cuisine at Hungry Mother is basically southern, but there’s a twist, literally as well as figuratively. Although Maiden is dedicated to the dishes that remind him of his roots in Virginia, there’s a French dimension to his art as well. He has worked with Emile Labrousse and studied cooking at New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier. In Boston he was a chef at l’Espalier, Sel de la Terre and Lumière. That background is noticeable in special touches like the lemon peel he dries and adds to the pepper for the catfish.
Well, how about frying up a batch at home using Maiden’s own recipe? Hungry Mother is one of several restaurants in Cambridge whose chefs -- Maiden among them -- have contributed signature recipes for a special softcover cookbook published by On The Rise, Inc. http://ontherise.org.
On The Rise is a day program for homeless women in the Cambridge, Somerville and Greater Boston area. Based in a comfortable three-story Victorian house at 341 Broadway, it offers them a safe haven, a meal, and a helping hand with the daunting array of challenges they face; these often include domestic abuse, addiction, unemployment, and medical and legal issues along with homelessness.
The cookbook is titled simply, “On The Rise: recipes from the best local chefs.” It is presented as a thank-you gift to the organization’s individual donors, many of them local people who bring in meals, collect clothing and housewares for newly housed women, and take part in the work parties that keep the place functioning smoothly. Barry Maiden’s catfish recipe is on pages 10-11; it includes the Creole mustard vinaigrette he serves with the dish.
Local businesses and foundations as well as individuals help to support On The Rise in inventive ways like this, maintaining its $1 million annual budget close to balancing although it will likely run a deficit this year. On The Rise's Executive Director, Martha Sandler, sees a connection between the restaurant's name and the story behind it.
"Hungry Mother is named after a famous state park in Virginia; a family of settlers was lost in the wilderness there, and that was their appeal for help," she said. "We're so grateful to Cambridge's Hungry Mother and to the other participating restaurants for helping us help the women in need here in our own community!"
As in the recipe, Chef Maiden prepares catfish the traditional way—dipped in egg and milk, dusted with stone-ground cornmeal from South Carolina’s Anson Mills, and fried in hot oil. Along with the fish, diners can order seasonal greens that Maiden gets locally. He’s concerned about the environmental aspects of the business, and he gets supplies from local farmers and foragers.
Foragers? Yes, indeed, says Maiden. Foragers provide him with greens that many of us only know from novels about the South, but that actually grow here, too -- ramps (wild leeks) and fiddleheads (scrolled-up tips of young fern leaves), for example. He laid out a handful of these beside the translucent white catfish. Photo, left: ramps are above the fish, fiddlehead fern is below.
“You can actually do pretty well as a forager—people do it for a living. We pay ten bucks a pound for fiddleheads, so if you can collect 15 pounds or so, that’s not a bad day’s work.”
Maiden’s menus go way beyond catfish, however. There are clams and scallops for dyed-in-the-wool New Englanders; there's ham, sweetbreads, beef tongue, chicken, and lamb, backed up by other good things — biscuits, crostini, cornbread, pots de crême, rhubarb compote. And don't forget to have some boiled peanuts, a southern speciality.
Maiden has been in the restaurant business most of his adult life. “Ever since I was 16, with time out for the army,” he says.
He wasn’t a cook in the service, but he says he learned some important things there: “Things like focus, attention to detail, discipline.”
“Our menus change daily, don't get your heart too set on anything!” But . . . there’s always that cookbook.
Photo: On The Rise, Inc., 341 Broadway, Cambridge
Other Cambridge restaurants whose chefs contributed recipes to On The Rise’s cookbook: Upstairs on the Square (Chef Steven Brand); 1369 Coffee House (Chef Nicholas Pentabona); Dante (Chef Dante DeMagistris); Rialto (Chef Jody Adams); Craigie on Main (Chef Tony Maws), and Tupelo (also southern cuisine -- Chef Rembs Layman). Chefs Robert Gregory of Red Bones in Somerville, Dante DeMagistris and Daniele Baliani of il Casale in Belmont, and Jeremy Sewall of Eastern Standard in Boston also took part in the project, and their recipes are here too.
A message from On The Rise: With a donation of $25, Community Relations Manager Marisa Serrano will send a copy of the cookbook with a personal note to the honoree of your choice. Contact: (617) 497-7968
Fax: (617) 492-9814 ITTY: (617) 497-7887 email: firstname.lastname@example.org