Sunday, November 14, 2010

New England Clam Chowder

A real old fashioned treat!
     This is a traditional New England Clam Chowder recipe.  Boston Chowder is a close cousin of New England Clam Chowder.  Boston Chowder is usually only thickened with oyster crackers at the table.  New England clam chowder is most often thickened with flour that is added to the salt pork grease, but oyster crackers are usually served with New England chowder.
     Maine clam chowder is about the same thin as Boston chowder.  No celery is used in Maine chowder and onions are only occasionally added.  New England clam chowder usually has onion in the recipe and celery is often added.  Potatoes are part of all three of these chowder recipes, but some cooks in Maine add no onion or potato.  Maine chowder can be very basic and when Maine chowder is just made with hot milk and clams, it is really no longer a chowder.  It is a soup!
     A little more than ten years ago, I once took a day chef job in Maine for a summer.  The restaurant hired me to write a new menu that included some fancy seafood entrees and they wanted me to run an aggressive special du jour board.  The restaurant owner was a candidate for the worst restaurant owner of the century award!  The customers loved the nice seafood menu additions and fancy special du jour entrees that I cooked.  The restaurant owner had no knowledge of fine cooking, yet he insisted on making the Maine clam chowder for the menu.  His Maine clam chowder recipe was simply clams, milk and leftover baked potatoes.  That is about as fancy as Maine clam chowder gets.  Some people just cannot boil water.  The restaurant owner burnt the chowder every time he made it!  It was awful!  I had to go to another restaurant just to get a good bowl of chowder, just like our restaurant clientele did.  Seafood and lobster is a way of life in Maine.  In Maine, chowder can make you, or break you!  That restaurant went out of business a few months after I left Maine.  The owner's daily burnt chowder was his dying restaurant's nail in the coffin!
     Chowder originated in France, so the the answer to what the basic outline of how a chowder should be also lies in French cooking history.  Salt pork, roux made with the rendered grease and milk is the original French chowder.  Chowder was created long before the colombian exchange, so potatoes were not part of the original recipe.  Plain French chowder was made in cold coastal areas, especially in fishing villages.
     When meat was added to the original French chowders, any available meat was added.  Usually salt pork alone was the meat in the original chowders.  Along the coastline, clams were the easiest meat to acquire.  Soon, clams became the choice meat for adding to chowder and that started the clam chowder tradition.
     Chowder cooking spread through northern european and English fishing communities.  Both the English and French brought the clam chowder tradition to America.  Regional American east coast varieties of chowder started popping up in every fishing community.  Realistically, there are as many as over 100 slightly different chowder recipe variations between the eastern Canadian coast and North Carolina.  The New England clam chowder recipe is the closest to the first round of the original French clam chowder recipes, because it is made with the same cooking techniques.  The difference is that New England clam chowder has potatoes and onions with celery being an optional ingredient.  Since most Boston and Maine chowders are not thickened with salt pork grease roux, they cannot be compared to the original French clam chowders.
     At this time, I will not even delve into the topics of New Jersey clam chowder, Chesapeake clam chowder, Manhattan clam chowder, Rhode Island clam chowder (no milk, just broth) or Cape Hatteras clam chowder styles.  Bahama chowder and Key West chowder are two chowder styles that are far removed from the original French chowder.
     On a final note, Philadelphia is a town of solid tradition.  Philadelphia chefs rarely stray from traditional recipes.  What people now call New England clam chowder has been made in Philadelphia for a very long time.
     In pre revolutionary times, Philadelphia was a major cultural center for both the French and English.  New York City barely existed during that time in history, but Boston definitely was on the map.  In fact, Philadelphia was the first capitol city of America.  It is possible that the modern American chowder recipe known as New England clam chowder was first standardized in Philadelphia during pre revolutionary times.  By standardized, I mean the recipe was set in stone!  Who knows!  Not all history is preserved or written.    
     Everybody knows that canned clam chowder is awful tasting, when compared to a fresh clam chowder.  Canned clams are of very poor quality and they should not be used in this recipe.  You can use fresh frozen shucked clams to make a good chowder, but you will need to buy clam juice too.  There is nothing better than fresh shucked clams with their own juices for making a great chowder!
     I have cooked this old fashioned traditional New England clam chowder recipe in many restaurants over the years.  I cannot even guess how many thousands of gallons of this chowder I have made in my lifetime!
     New England Clam Chowder Recipe:
     This recipe makes 2 servings!  
     Deeper water large ocean clams are not a good choice for this recipe.  Keep in mind that the original French and American chowders were made with clams that were gathered by hand in tidal basins and bays.  Littlenecks, large necks and manila clams are the most common clams along the northeast coast.  Cherrystones are a variety of large neck clam.  Geoduck clams are west coast clams and you are way out of the chowder league ball game if you use those clams! 
     Small dice 1 1/2 tablespoons of fatty salt pork.
     Heat a sauce pot over medium low heat.
     Add the salt pork.
     Gently saute and render the salt pork, till some grease renders from the fat.  Try not to overly brown the salt pork!
     Add 2 tablespoons of finely chopped onion.
     Add 2 tablespoons of finely chopped celery.
     Add 1 1/3 cups of small cube shaped diced potato.
     Saute and stir till the onions turn clear in color.
     Add just enough flour, while stirring, to soak up the excess grease in the pan.  (About 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of flour is plenty.  Do not let the flour brown!)
     Stir until the flour combines with the grease.
     Add 3 1/2 cups of milk while stirring.
     Bring the chowder to a gentle boil.
     Stir till the chowder thickens to a thin sauce consistency.
     Add 1 bay leaf.
     Add 1 tiny pinch of nutmeg.
     Add black pepper.
     Note:  Salt pork is salty, so taste the chowder to see if it needs salt.  Add salt only if necessary!
     After the chowder comes to a gentle boil, reduce the temperature to low heat.
     Shuck 6 to 8 large neck clams over a bowl, so the clam juices fall into the bowl.  (Use more clams if they are small, like little neck clams or manila clams.)
     Pour the fresh clam juice through a fine mesh strainer into the chowder.  (1/2 cup to 3/4 cup of clam juice is needed.  If the clams are not juicy, then make up the difference with bottled clam juice.)
     Finely chop the shucked clams and add them to the chowder.
     Simmer the chowder, till the potatoes become fully cooked.  (Chowder does not need to simmer for a long period of time, especially when using fresh clams.)
     Remove the bay leaf. 
     Ladle the chowder into a soup bowl and garnish with a sprinkle of paprika.
     There should be small pieces of clam in every spoonful of chowder.  The chowder's consistency should be a medium thin sauce consistency at the most.  Thick chowders are not well recieved in the northeast.
     The flavor of a fresh clam chowder is delicious!  The taste and aroma of the ocean are present in every sip.  Clam chowder is great for warming up on a chilly day.  Yum!  ...  Shawna

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