Chowder, Plain and Fancy

When I was nineteen, after spending a year at a small private college in Vermont, for financial reasons I had to switch to a state school. I found myself in Buffalo, New York. Transplanted, I was utterly overwhelmed by the warren-like dorms, the vast campus, and the auditorium-like classrooms of my required courses. One day I wandered, lonely and homesick, into the bookstore in the Student Union and noticed a small pile of books for sale. One of them was Imogene Wolcott’s cookbook, The Yankee Cookbook. The image on the cover, a cooked lobster on a platter next to a pot of baked beans, appealed to me. I’d grown up spending summers on Cape Cod and the photo spoke to me of home.

I had never owned a cookbook before. Even on my tiny budget, the discounted book was an affordable luxury. I had no kitchen or even a hotplate, but I bought the book – and a protective plastic cover for it! — and went back to the dorm happy. For some reason I became fixated on the recipe for corn chowder, page 15. I looked at the book often and planned to make the chowder as soon as I had a chance.

I don’t remember when I finally made the chowder – it may have been years later. One I’d tried it, I cooked it often. The protective plastic cover kept the book in good shape through my many moves in college and, later, after I graduated and became an itinerant archeologist crisscrossing the country with each new job.

At its most basic, corn chowder is a simple combination of corn, water, potatoes, onions, and cream.  The potatoes give it substance, and the corn adds a pleasant chewiness.  The flavors meld magically to make a heartwarming, soothing concoction with fragrant steam rising from the pot.  It needs plenty of salt and freshly ground black pepper. White pepper just isn’t the same.

Wolcott’s chowder can be assembled in little more than the time it takes to make a sandwich. She combined milk and cream, but I found that straight cream made for a richer chowder and eliminated the necessity of having to buy milk, which I then (depending on my living circumstances, which were often communal) might have trouble storing.

After I was married and had children, a collection of cookbooks, and plenty of refrigerator space, I still made the basic chowder. My kids grew up eating and loving it, and it is now part of their own cooking repertoire.

About six years ago I was asked by The New York Times to test a recipe for a chowder by Chef Sam Hayward of Fore Street Restaurant in Portland, Maine. It was topped by panko-encrusted conch. Though quite elaborate compared to my good old basic chowder, I found the melding of flavors – orange, coconut, poblano peppers, mixed vegetables, seafood – fascinating and immensely appealing. Although I tested the recipe using conch, when I cooked it again for pleasure I topped it with panko-encrusted fried scallops, or served it with no topping at all. Sophisticated, elegant, yet still homey, it’s a grown-up chowder, but a chowder nonetheless.

Basic Corn Chowder
Adapted from Imogene Wolcott

Yield: 6 cups (about 3 servings)

  • Three to four 1/4-inch thick slices of fatty salt pork
  • 1 large onion, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced
  • 1 large starchy (baking) potato, peeled and cut into 1/2 -inch dice
  • One 14-ounce can corn kernels, drained (do not use creamed corn)
  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups heavy cream
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper.

1.  In a medium saucepan over low heat, fry the salt pork until it releases most of its fat, about 10 minutes.  Add the onion and sauté until the onion is translucent but not browned, 2-3 minutes.

2.  Add the potato and just enough water (about 1 cup) to barely cover the potato.  Cover the pan and simmer until the potato is tender, about 15 minutes.  Add the corn and bring back to a simmer.

3.  Remove and discard the pieces of salt pork.  Stir in the cream.  Season well with salt and plenty of pepper, and serve. This soup improves if you can resist eating it all right away. Let it cool and refrigerate in a covered container for up to 24 hours. Reheat gently over low heat or spoon into a mug and heat in a microwave.

Fresh Corn Chowder with Saffron, Coconut, and Orange
Adapted from Sam Hayward, Fore Street Restaurant, Portland, Maine

Yield:  8 to 10 servings

For the broth:

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 Scotch bonnet chile, seeded and minced
  • 6 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 12 small clams, scrubbed
  • 12 mussels, debearded and scrubbed
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns
  • 3 cups freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 2 teaspoons saffron threads
  • 4 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup canned coconut milk

For the vegetables:

  • 6 new potatoes (about 1 pound), scrubbed and diced
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) diced smoked slab bacon
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 poblano chile, seeded and minced
  • 2/3 cup fresh corn kernels (from about 1 ear)
  • 1/2 of a red onion, peeled and diced
  • 2 large carrots, diced
  • 1/2 of a fennel bulb, cored and diced
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro leaves
  • 2 bay leaves, broken into pieces
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper.

1.  Prepare the broth:  In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the oil over medium-high heat, and saute the chile, shallots, and garlic for 1 minute.  Add the clams, mussels, star anise, cracked pepper, and orange juice.  Stir, and cover pan.  After a few minutes, as the shellfish open, transfer them to a colander set over a bowl to catch the liquid; keep the pan covered as much as possible.  Discard any shellfish that don’t open after 10 minutes.

2.  After all the clams and mussels have been removed, return any liquid in the bowl to the pan.  Uncover the pan and reduce the liquid until 1 cup remains, about 10 minutes.  Add the saffron, cream, and coconut milk.  Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.  Reduce until the mixture just coats the back of a spoon, 15 to 20 minutes.  Remove from heat and strain into a bowl; discard solids.  Remove clam and mussel meat from shells and reserve.

3.  Prepare the vegetables:  Bring a saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil, add potatoes and simmer until just undersone, 8 to 10 minutes.  Strain and set aside.  In a large heavy soup pan over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil and saute the bacon until half-cooked.  Add the garlic and poblano chile; stir.  Add the corn, onion, carrots, fennel, celery, and bell pepper; stir.  Add the cilantro, bay leaves, and salt and pepper to taste.  Stir until vegetables are just tender, about 8 minutes.  Add the potatoes, reserved saffron cream, and clam and mussel meat.  Ladle the soup into warm bowls, and serve.

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