Chowders Plain and Fancy
Soup or chowder?
Chowder can be plain or fancy. All chowders are soup but not all soups are chowder. What’s the difference? If you look it up the answers are mostly noncommittal, along the lines of “chunkier than a soup and not as chunky as a stew.” In New England – the historical home base of American chowders – they will tell you it should include milk or cream. Don’t get them started on “Manhattan clam chowder,” which has neither. I tend to be in that camp as well, though my life has been pretty evenly divided between Manhattan and New England.
A chowder is chunky, usually has onions and potatoes in some form, and some type of cream. Once you get the gist of what a chowder is, a recipe is hardly needed. There are only a few things to remember.
It’s Really Simple
Cook some onion in fat, add potatoes and enough liquid to cover. When the potatoes are tender, add the main ingredient – usually seafood or vegetable – and as soon as that is cooked to taste, add the cream. Season well with salt and pepper. This is an oversimplification, but is the essence of a chowder. Remember not to boil the cream, and bear in mind that chowder is often better the next day.
My Favorite Clam Chowder
I started clamming when I was a small child and my dad showed me how to look for dimples in the sand that showed where a clam might lie beneath. He was a master at making baked stuffed clams and clam chowder. He made large quantities of chowder base and froze it in containers that he could turn into soup on short notice. The clam shells were tossed into our sandy driveway where the car’s tires would crush them into white gravel.
Cookbook author and seafood expert Jean Kerr is the author of my favorite New England clam chowder recipe. Her recipe begins with steaming whole clams, but because I like to make it often and with little preparation, I keep chopped clams in my freezer (only 118 ml/½ cup needed for this recipe) and a bottle of clam juice in my pantry. The recipe includes the New England tradition of using evaporated skim milk (also in my pantry) and light cream.
Chowders Plain and Fancy
The most elegant chowder I’ve had was a recipe I tested for the New York Times by Chef Sam Hayward, coincidentally the chef at one of my favorite restaurants, Fore Street, in Portland, Maine. Chef Hayward’s outstanding recipe for Scotian Lobster Chowder includes slab bacon cut into minute dice, leeks, shoepeg corn, and the meat of six lobsters. It’s a luscious and extravagant dish that I plan to include as a course in my Christmas dinner.
And sometimes the perfect thing is just plain and simple.
I started my second year of college as a transfer student at a big university in a new city far from home. Homesick, miserable, and out of place, one day I wandered into the bookstore in the Student Union and noticed a book called The Yankee Cookbook, by Imogene Wolcott. I was counting my pennies, I was living in a dorm and had no kitchen, but when I opened the book it fell open to a recipe for corn chowder. I’d never even tasted corn chowder, but it seemed overwhelmingly appealing to me. I bought the book and even bought a plastic cover for it, so that years later, when I had an apartment and a kitchen and a few pots and pans, the book was still like new. It was a small triumph to finally cook from that book, that corn chowder. I still make it today. I still have the book, still looking new – I handle it with affection and respect – but I haven’t looked at the recipe in at least twenty-five years.
Here’s how I make it:
You’ll need a chunk of salt pork cut into strips, a large onion peeled and quartered and cut into slices, one large peeled russet potato cut into dice, one can of corn niblets (NOT creamed corn), a pint of heavy cream (you may not need all of it), and lots of salt and pepper.
In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, fry the salt pork to get as much fat rendered as you can. Reduce heat to medium and add the onion, cooking it until softened but not at all browned. Add the diced potatoes and just enough water to barely cover them. Cover the pan and cook until the potatoes are barely tender. Add the whole can of corn. If you are comfortable with the liquid in the can, add that too, otherwise drain it first. Simmer until the potatoes are tender. Add about a cup and a half of cream, and season well with salt and pepper. Heat until steaming but do not boil. Remove and discard the salt pork. If the chowder is flavorful you might want to add more cream, otherwise just save the cream for your coffee. It’s important to add enough salt and especially pepper. This soup improves if served the next day, so if possible let it cool just until warm then refrigerate. Reheat only until steaming – don’t let it boil. Of course you can doctor it and fancy it up, but I like it plain. It makes a good breakfast, too.