That’s “chow-dah.”

From M., 1 March 2010, Chowder: what the hell is it?

Q: I have always been puzzled by the American dish called chowder. Am I right in thinking it is a bit like a thick soup, similar to minestrone?

A: Thanks for your question. Chowder and minestrone are both soups, but that’s about the only trait they share. The word “chowder” comes from the French word chaudière, or cauldron, a nod to the prototypical cooking vessel. A frugal dish, chowder usually contains salt pork (today, bacon is more common), crushed crackers and/or potato as a thickener (again, in modern times, flour-thickened chowders are more common than those with crackers), and milk or cream. Fish, clams, mussels, or corn are the star ingredients.

You may have been led to believe that chowders resemble minestrone because so-called Manhattan clam chowder features tomatoes and vegetables, and omits the dairy. Whether a soup that substitutes tomatoes for dairy is a proper chowder is subject to debate and sometimes heated argument. Italian and Portuguese arrivals to the United States likely were responsible for combining tomatoes and seafood in soups, and today in the Portuguese strongholds of Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts, red (tomato) and white (cream) chowders coexist. In 1894, the chef of the legendary New York restaurant Delmonico’s created the so-called “chowder de Lucines,” which starred tomatoes and clams but featured no cream or milk. Legislators in New England states, however, have sought from time to time to outlaw tomatoes in chowder.

Clam chowder

The flour is optional, giving the chowder a thicker consistency. I prefer not to use it as I enjoy the brothiness of unthickened chowder.

2 dozen cherrystone clams
1/2 c filtered water
1/2 c dry white wine
1/4 lb salt pork or slab bacon (sliced is fine)
one large onion, peeled and diced 1/4″
2 tbsp flour (optional)
4 sprigs thyme, tied together with kitchen twine
one bay leaf
2 large waxy potatoes (like red potatoes), diced 1/2′
2 c half and half or equal parts whole milk and heavy cream
salt and pepper
flat leaf parsley, minced
oyster crackers

In a large stockpot with a lid, combine the water and wine, and bring to a boil. Add the clams and cover the pot. Cook the clams over medium heat, until the clams open (about 5-7 minutes). Remove from heat. When the clams are cool enough to handle, remove them from their shells and chop coarsely, reserving the meat in bowl. Discard the shells and any clams that did not open during cooking. Strain the cooking liquid through a chinois lined with cheesecloth to remove all grit. Alternatively, let the grit settle to the bottom of the pan and carefully pour off the non-gritty liquid into another container.

If using salt pork, bring a small pot of water to a simmer and add the pork, blanching for five minutes to remove the excess salt. Remove the pork and dice 1/4″. If using bacon, dice 1/4″. Place a large sauce pot on medium heat and, when hot, add the bacon or salt pork, rendering until crisp. Remove the bacon to a small bowl with a slotted spoon. Add the onions to the fat and sweat until tender over medium heat. If using flour, add it now, stirring well and cooking until barely golden. Return the bacon or salt pork to the pan.

Pour in the clam broth and bring to a simmer. Add the thyme and bay leaf and simmer 15 minutes. Add half and half and the diced potatoes and simmer until tender. Add the clams and simmer just to heat through. Season with salt and pepper to taste, garnished with minced parsley and oyster crackers.

Corn chowder

Corn chowder poses something of a conundrum. It’s best when corn is in season starting in midsummer, but there’s nothing I’m less interested in eating than a steaming hot bowl of cream soup in July. I have been known to make this dish in the cooler autumn months, using frozen corn.

Vegetarians may prepare this dish without the bacon or salt pork. Double the quantity of pimenton to simulate bacon’s smokiness. You will need more salt at the end of cooking.

1/4 lb salt pork or slab bacon (sliced is fine)
one large onion, peeled and diced 1/4″
2 tbsp flour (optional)
1/4 tsp pimenton (smoked Spanish paprika)
2 c chicken stock or water
4 sprigs thyme, tied together with kitchen twine
one bay leaf
2 large waxy potatoes (like red potatoes), diced 1/2′
3 c corn kernels
2 c half and half or equal parts whole milk and heavy cream
salt and pepper
flat leaf parsley, minced
oyster crackers

If using salt pork, bring a small pot of water to a simmer and add the pork, blanching for five minutes to remove the excess salt. Remove the pork and dice 1/4″. If using bacon, dice 1/4″. Place a large sauce pot on medium heat and, when hot, add the bacon or salt pork, rendering until crisp. Remove the bacon to a small bowl with a slotted spoon. Add the onions to the fat and sweat until tender over medium heat. Add the pimenton and saute to bloom the spices. If using flour, add it now, stirring well and cooking until barely golden. Return the bacon or salt pork to the pan.

Pour in the chicken stock or water and bring to a simmer. Add the thyme and bay leaf and simmer 15 minutes. Add half and half and the diced potatoes and simmer until tender. Add the corn and simmer just to heat through. Season with salt and pepper to taste, finished with minced parsley and oyster crackers.

One thought on “That’s “chow-dah.”

  1. Pingback: Land and sea. « The Upstart Kitchen

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s