BOSTON -- Scholarly is not the first word you would apply to a creative, talented chef like Jasper White. But in culinary history, he does rate at the top of the class.
Ask him how many oysters Charles Dickens ate on his visit to Boston's Parker House in 1842, and Mr. White could probably tell you the exact number -- down to the very last half shell.
Oysters are a favorite subject of this chef-owner of the acclaimed restaurant Jasper's, and the author of "Jasper White's Cooking from New England" (Harper & Row, $27.95). His imaginative way with New England foods has won him a national reputation. Under his direction, traditional, regional foods such as cranberries, corn, maple syrup, venison and game bird develop new flavor and meaning.
"I really sort of backed into this idea of regional foods," Mr. White said in a recent interview. "It was simply that I was trying to find the very best quality, the freshest foods available.
"That meant I used mostly food from the area around me, here in New England, when I opened the restaurant seven years ago. And as I started cooking with the wonderful fresh seafood, the lobsters, wild berries and beach plums, and abundant local farm vegetables, I got interested in the way people had been cooking their foods all these years," he says.
A close look at his menu reveals an interest in the cooking methods of American Indians and early settlers. His dishes also reflect early immigrant influences from the cuisines of the Portuguese, Chinese, Irish and Italians.
Mussels with curry, jonnycakes with poached egg and Osetra caviar, Cape Cod littlenecks with pickled ginger, and chicken and oyster pot pie are just some of the seafood items on the menu.
Mr. White gained much of his knowledge about oysters by studying menus from the early 1800s. "Today we eat only one-tenth the number of oysters consumed 100 years ago," he says. "Oysters were a tremendous fad in the mid-1800s in both Europe and the United States, and people ate not a half-dozen, but 40 or 50 oysters at a sitting." He says Dickens was thought to have eaten as many as 100 at one sitting.
About 75 to 85 percent of the dinners served at Jasper's are seafood, says Mr. White. But when he and his wife, Nancy, opened the restaurant eight years ago, they had not planned for a seafood restaurant. "It just worked out that way," he says. "I couldn't be happier. I love seafood of all kinds but it's more difficult in a restaurant than serving roasts of meat."
Jasper's gets tuna from a Japanese company up the coast in Rocky Neck, Mass., that is known for supplying the best fish for sushi bars. Their Nantucket cape scallops come from Steve Connolly's Seafood Co. "We use a lot of bottom fish, too, and have had some beautiful halibut lately. It's expensive but excellent," says Mr. White. "I get wonderful smoked fish from Ducktrap River Fish Farm in Maine. It's the very best smokehouse in the country."
Jasper's is also known for its smoked brook trout with horseradish cream and potato-rye toast, and for its smoked fish in chowders and other dishes. Mr. White also serves "fingerling" trout that are "very small, almost like smelts," he says. "In Colonial days they netted them, and [they] were tremendously popular. I liked them too, and put them on the menu even though they were available only a short time. Julia Child came back a second night she liked them so much," he adds.
His emphasis on freshness carries over to other menu items as well.
"I use a lot of organically grown foods, but this is not a mission with me," Mr. White says. "For me the real reason to buy from a certain grower or supplier is because it's the freshest and the best quality.
"We do our own bread. Paula Sullivan, our baker, comes in early in the morning. We serve the New England Anadama bread, blueberry muffins, a brown bread which is a little sweet, and plain white bread sticks covered with coarse salt. And we use Kate's butter from Old Orchard Beach, Maine, which is really the best butter around," he says.
Because some restaurants are lowering their prices due to economic pressures, Mr. White has slightly altered his menu. "I can't lower prices at the top end of the menu because I am committed to the best quality, but I enjoy adding dishes with a more moderate price," he says.
"I've added dishes like codfish cakes using fresh cod, and Yankee pot roast, and I make a boiled dinner with corned beef which I corned myself. People really liked the pot roast and boiled dinner meals on chilly or rainy nights."
Mr. White's cooking techniques respect the traditional while making it new and wonderful. Some of his "signature dishes" are Indian Summer chowder with smoked chicken; pork rib chops with clams and garlic sauce, pheasant broth with escarole; red flannel hash, chunky lobster stew, brown bread pancakes, pumpkin creme brulee and apple-butterscotch tapioca pudding. This is one of his favorite recipes for mussels.
Portuguese-style steamed mussels
The Portuguese immigrants contributed much to New England cooking. This recipe, adapted from "Jasper White's Cooking From New England," uses the traditional Portuguese sausage called chourico, a garlicky dry sausage, or linguica, which is similar, but thinner.
3 pounds uncultivated mussels
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 small bay leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic (3 or 4 cloves)
1 medium onion, in small ( 1/4 -inch) dice (1 cup)
1 small bell pepper, green or red, in small dice
2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, finely chopped
1/4 pound chourico or linguica, thinly sliced
1 cup water
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
freshly ground black pepper
Scrub and debeard mussels. Discard any that are open. Heat olive oil and bay leaves in large pot. Add garlic, onion and bell pepper. Cook 5 minutes until tender. Add tomatoes, chourico and water. Simmer 5 minutes. Add mussels and cover tightly. Steam until shells open, about 6 minutes.
Transfer mussels to bowls and return sauce to heat. Add parsley and cilantro, and season to taste with ground pepper. Spoon sauce over mussels and serve immediately. Provide empty bowls for shells.