Although I missed it, I want to honor National New England Clam Chowder Day (January 21st) with a weekly recipe from one of my favored Maine cookbooks. It seems especially appropriate with the New England Patriots facing off in the Super Bowl tomorrow (Go Pats!).
While there is some debate about the origins of chowder, the Oxford English Dictionary has traced the roots of the word ‘chowder’ to fishing villages along the coast of France. The term is applied broadly to nearly any soup or stew made with fish and vegetables and its consistency and flavors vary from cream or milk based to tomato based (like Manhattan clam chowder). Historically considered “poor man’s food,” chowder became mainstream in the Northeastern US by the mid 1800s and now claims wide popularity. (source: http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/ChowderHistory.htm)
Personally, I enjoy all types of chowder – it combines many of my favorite foods and flavors and it meets my number one recipe requirement: simplicity. For today’s post, I went directly to my Superb Maine Soups cookbook by Cynthia Finnemore Simonds – “Maine Clam Chowder” can be found on page 60. The recipe serves 4-6.
- 10 slices of bacon
- 4 tablespoons reserved bacon fat
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 4 medium potatoes, chopped into bite-size chunks
- 1/2 cup flour (I don’t care for a really thick chowder so I added slightly less flour)
- 5 cups bottled clam juice
- 16 oz. chopped cooked clams
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/2 cup light cream
- 1 teaspoon salt
- freshly ground black pepper
In a large saucepan, saute the bacon until crispy and place on a paper-towel-lined plate to drain. Reserve four tablespoons of the bacon fat in the saucepan and spoon out the rest. When bacon is cool enough to handle, crumble into a bowl and set aside. Cook the onion in the remaining bacon fat until translucent (don’t brown). Add the potatoes and cook until fork tender.
And here’s where the recipe and I went in different directions. The recipe as written: Remove the potatoes and onions with a slotted spoon – place the mixture in a bowl and set aside. Stir the flour into the fat in the saucepan, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom with a whisk. Add the clam juice, whisking constantly until the flour is completely incorporated (you don’t want any lumps). Continue cooking on low heat until thick.
What I did: because I didn’t use as much flour, I didn’t see the point in removing the onions and potatoes. I slowly added both the clam juice and flour in tandem, whisking / stirring to combine. This worked for me… but to each their own!
Return the potatoes and onion to the thickened liquid, and add the clams, milk, cream, salt, and pepper, and stir well to combine. Warm the mixture, but don’t let it boil. Ladle the chowder into bowls and top with the reserved bacon.
A few closing tips: if you prefer not to use the bacon, just start with a few tablespoons of butter. In my opinion, this is not the time to try to substitute olive oil. As my brother would say (and he’s a heck of a cook), “it needs a little fat.” You will miss out on the salty, smoky bacon flavor, but it will still be delicious. Also, as with many of my recipes, I like to add more veggies to create a nutritious, one-dish meal for us – things like corn and even kale complement this basic recipe well.