Friday, April 11, 2008

Can Too Many Cooks Spoil the Chowder?

When I moved to Cape Cod straight out of high school, I did not eat clams and thought the idea of shellfish in a milk based broth was pretty gross. Working as a waitress at Friendly’s in Orleans, every time I had to lift the lid of the chowder pot to serve a cup, my stomach would turn.

In the years since, I have not only learned to appreciate clam chowder, but have become a connoisseur. Every time my husband and I go out to dinner, we order at least one cup just to see how it measures up to our favorites. Our two younger children have joined in the critique. Even our youngest, Tommy (who is just like Mikey in the old Life Cereal commercials – he doesn’t like anything) actually loves chowder, especially when it is served in a bread bowl.

We eat chowder out often enough that we rarely make it at home. But when I saw a recipe for clam chowder in Yankee Magazine that used real clams to make the broth instead of bottled clam juice, I simply had to try it. To up the ante, I decided to make homemade bread bowls too, using the Vienna Bread recipe from our newest cookbook, The Bread Bible by Beth Hensperger.

This supposedly simple meal took hours to make and the bread was way more time consuming than the chowder. First I had to make a “sponge,” which is a starter that serves as the first period of fermentation that was (hopefully) going to develop the glutin and give my bread a fine texture. An hour later, I had to make the dough and then let that rise until double in bulk. The recipe said two hours, but I really only had time for one because it still needed another rising (an hour) and then I had to bake it (25 – 30 minutes).

At some point I began grumbling, “Who on earth has four hours just for bread?” The funny thing is I chose this particular recipe because it was one of the fastest. Some of the recipes take four days!

Once the bread dough was formed into four round loaves, I began the chowder. As I steamed the clams, chopped the veggies, and fried the bacon, my husband wandered in. While I was slaving over the bread, he was fishing (note to readers: not hard fishing, he’s a catch and release guy who does it just for fun).

He glanced at the recipe on the counter, opened the spice cabinet and threw a dash of something into my chowder. I shrieked calmly asked, “What are you doing?”

“Adding some thyme," he said. "Chowder is better with thyme.”

“That’s not what the recipe says,” I insisted, even though I rarely follow recipes. It was too late to take it back, so I let it go. A little while later as I was making a salad, I noticed that Steve was attacking my chowder with a potato masher. This time I could not let it go.

“What on earth are you doing to my chowder?”

“Your chowder was a little thin,” he said. “Mashing a few of the potatoes creates a thicker broth.”

His calm authority made me want to throw the tomato I was holding at him. But I didn’t because the timer went off and the bread bowls were done. Or rather bread platters. They never reached a roundness that would allow them to be called “bowls” but I did cut off the top, scoop out the inside and ladle the chowder into the cavity.

The homemade clam broth added a sublime level of brininess that made me swear off bottle clam juice forever. It’s just too easy to make your own and the flavor is so much better. Even though the bread was a little flat, it did have a wonderful texture, flavor and crumb.


Our Revised Version of the “Down East Clam Chowder” from Yankee Magazine

4 dozen little necks or 3 dozen cherrystones
8 slices of bacon
1 large onion, chopped small
2 stalks of celery, chopped small
6 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes.
2 cups milk
2 cups light cream
5 tablespoons butter
A few turns of freshly ground black pepper

Wash clams and put them in a large pot with 2 cups of water. Cover, bring to a boil, and cook just until shells open, about 10 minutes. Allow to cool, then shuck clams and chop them in half or quarters (depending on what size clams you began with) and set aside.

Pour broth through a strainer lined with a coffee filter to eliminate all sand and sediment.

In the meantime, chop the bacon and cook the bits until crisp. Drain on a plate covered with a paper towel and then pour off half the fat. In the remaining fat, sauté the onions and celery. When crisp/tender add the potatoes and enough clam juice to cover the potatoes. Add water if necessary to cover the potatoes. Simmer until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.

Add milk and light cream, bring to a simmer. Add clams and butter, and simmer a few minutes more until clams are heated through and butter is melted (too long and the clams will be tough). Taste the broth and add salt and pepper if needed.

Serve in soup bowls and top with reserved bacon bits.


Scarlett and Annabelle Darling said...

I'm with you on this one, Laurie. The one who starts the recipe has control over it. Put down that thyme and masher Steve!

Love your blog!
Candy xo

Hallowtide said...

Love the blog. Great name for it. I've made lots of your recipes and they're always delicious--can't wait to see more.