Thursday, March 11, 2010

New England Clam Chowder

I am totally excited about spring. However, March doesn't fool me one bit. It's brisk out there. It's best to be prepared. There will be days that require something warming for both the body and soul.

New England clam chowder should do the job nicely.

As a soup, it flows into the cold nooks and crannies of your body and warms it. As a chowder, it provides something substantial. I'm big on soup for breakfast; it's porrigey and warming, and it contains a lot of nutrition in a small amount of food. You can't beat throwing a pre-portioned block of soup into the microwave for speed and ease. Clam chowder is what I want on those blustery mornings where I'm not really sure I wanted to get out of bed in the first place.

The recipe I use is from Cooks Illustrated and can be found here... sort of. You need to have a subscription to access the recipe, but the discussion of their chowder vision is interesting. I'm not about to mess with the Cooks Illustrated business model or break copyright rules, so I can't exactly print it out for your perusal, but you can also find it in The Best Recipe. Really, with what I'm about to tell you, you can take any clam chowder recipe and make it your own.

Typically that means salt pork or bacon. I'm fond of bacon—salt pork can be difficult to find. Bacon can be purchased then frozen in 3-4 ounce bricks and thawed when you want it. (Do be sure the bacon is gluten-free, if that's a concern.) If you want to avoid meat/pork products, use half olive oil half butter. You'll be missing out on some flavor, but I understand how these things go.

This depends on where you hail from. I suspect the purist wants only onions. I myself like a few stalks of celery. I suppose if you were to go that far, you may as well add a carrot and have a mirepoix, but I just can't bring myself to do it. I've had clam chowders that did, and they were lovely—I've even added half a red pepper into mine—but it's just not part of my chowder vision. Any time you sauté vegetables for a soup like this, you want to do it long and slow. Onions need time to get golden and develop their sugars. If stuff starts to brown on the bottom of the pan, good! You’ll scrape that up later when you add your liquid (but if it bothers you too much, cut back on the heat and add a few tablespoons of liquid to the onions. But let them brown!)

I like using brown rice flour to make a roux, but be careful—brown rice flour browns much faster than wheat flour. Two tablespoons ought to do it, but it depends on how thick you chowder vision is. I’ve seen recipes call for a half a cup of flour or more. This leads me to two subsets of the thickener, potatoes and dairy.

The traditional potato would be a red potato with the skin left on, but I have been experimenting with baking potatoes and gotten some stellar results. I like to use and immersion blender and puree the mixture halfway, before I add any clams. This allows the starch in the potatoes to break down and make the chowder quite a bit thicker. The CI recipe is specifically looking for a potato that doesn’t do this, but... It all depends on what you want. Using a starchy potato and blending part of the soup is a great way to thicken the soup and give it mouth feel without using heavy cream or a lot of flour.

The CI recipe uses heavy cream. I take issue with that. While I have no problem with heavy cream, too much fat in the mouth tends to deaden the flavors, and in this instance, I really feel you'd be better off with heal-and-half or whole milk. Clearly if you're trying to make a lower-fat version, you’ll be better off skipping the cram and thickening with starchy potatoes, blending, and perhaps using a bit more flour in the roux or less liquid for the stock. Still, entire regional variations are based on what version of dairy is used—don’t be afraid to experiment!

This is the part that freaks people out. "I don't know anything about clams!" "I can't get fresh clams!" Nope, won't wash. You can make lovely chowder with canned clams. But there are a few things you do want to look for:

The fewer ingredients on the can, the better. Try to avoid canned clams with a lot of phosphates as preservatives. I've found canned clams with citric acid as the preservative work wonderously well. Same with clam juice—the fewer ingredients, the better.

Clams are mollusks. They have all their bits thrown together under the shell, and when they're processed, all those bits end up in the can. You might not want to think too hard, is what I'm saying. Although do keep an eye out for shell fragments.

I actually do have access to fresh clams. When I asked how much, in round about figures, seven pounds of littleneck clams might cost, my fishmonger told me he didn't sell clams by the pound, but by the dozen—and it worked out to $50. If you have access to fresh clams cheaper than this, marvelous! If you're not quite ready to blow $50 on a soup, then canned clams will set you back about six bucks.

Canned clams and clam juice both contain salt, so consider that before you follow any recipe's recommendations for salting. That said, I feel like if you don't salt the potatoes while they're boiling, the soup won't ever taste right. A little during and then, when the soup is finished, do the final adjustment. There's nothing wrong with keeping the salt content on the low side and letting others salt as they will.

Pepper, however, is a must. If you've never ground your own peppercorns, now is the time. I think chowder should be peppery, but this means different things to different people. Again, pepper to the not-quite-there and then pass the grinder.

Chowder is a lot more exciting to eat than to photograph. It's um... white and lumpy. Don't be fooled. Beneath this bland exterior is a rich and satisfying flavor experience. Crackers are an absolute must. Glutino has a decent cracker for soups, but just to eat it out of hand it has a strange aftertaste, plus they're a bit pricey. I like the Ener-G brand myself. Or heck, make your own crackers! This chowder certainly deserves it.

The link below goes to a page of several different regional recipes that vary in complexity from crock pot to fresh clams. If you are of a more analytical bent, Cooking for Engineers has a great walk-through for clam chowder as well. The important thing is to try one. March can be cruel with those blustery winds, so fortify yourself. You’ll be happy as a clam.

Take me to New England clam chowder nirvana!

No comments: