Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
The Great Debates
In the history of mankind, there have been many serious debates:
- Is man granted Heavenly salvation through faith or good works? (Luther vs. Tetzel)
- Are electrons, light, and similar entities waves or particles? (Einstein vs. Bohr in the 1927 conference on quantum mechanics)
- The legitimacy of teaching Darwinism in tax-funded schools (Clarence Darrow vs. Wm. Jennings Bryan in defense of creationism vs. evolution in the Scopes trial of 1925)
May I add one more significant debate to the list—should clam chowder be made with milk or tomatoes?
. . . that rather horrendous soup called Manhattan clam chowder . . . resembles a vegetable soup that accidentally had some clams dumped into it."
— James Beard (American cookbook writer and chef, 1903-1985)
What Is Chowder?
According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, the word chowder was derived from the French word for a large cooking vessel—a chaudiere (caldron) in which Breton sailors tossed their catch for the preparation of a communal stew. These original chowders contained not clams but fish, typically cod, haddock, or bass. Chaudiere's, or chowders, crossed the Atlantic with New World settlers to fishing towns such as Boston, Nantucket, and New Bedford.
The first published recipe for seafood chowder appeared in the second edition of American Cookery by Amelia Simmons. Ms. Simmons' version called for bass, salt pork, crackers and a side of potatoes.
"Take a bass weighing four pounds, boil half an hour; take six slices raw salt pork, fry them till the lard is nearly extracted, one dozen crackers soaked in cold water five minutes; put the bass into the lard, also the pieces of pork and crackers, cover close, and fry for 20 minutes; serve with potatoes, pickles, apple-sauce or mangoes; garnish with green parsley.”
By the middle of the 19th-century, potatoes were being added to the stew rather than being served as a side dish. Although there were numerous interpretations of the recipe based on the availability and seasonality of ingredients, the basics of chopped seafood suspended in a creamy white base remained the same.
Originally that "creamy white base" was composed of hardtack biscuits soaked in water. That evolved into hardtack softened with milk, and ultimately the biscuits were discarded, but the milk remained.
Let's examine each of the components of a New England clam chowder which should then help us assemble the perfect recipe.
Pork Adds Flavor to Clam Chowder
If you have never cooked chowder, you might be wondering why pork is an ingredient in a seafood stew. The answer is flavor. Hundreds of years ago salt pork was inexpensive, easy to acquire, and provided an easy umami flavor boost to dishes that otherwise would have been meatless and bland. When you think of popular New England dishes (perhaps baked beans and slow-cooked green beans come to mind) you will always find a piece of salt pork lingering in the pot.
However, I would posit that what salt pork boasts in flavor it lacks in texture. Salt pork is mostly fat and adding it to chowder results in a grease-filled kettle of stew. On the other hand, sliced bacon is much leaner. It has some substance, but it's smoked—a flavor that can overpower the delicate briny flavor of fresh clams. The texture of thin-sliced bacon can also become tough during the long cooking process.
I prefer a compromise of slab bacon cut into 1/4-inch dice. Cook it low and slow to coax out every bit of fat and leave crispy umami-rich bits in the bottom of the pot.
Vegetables Provide Depth and Aromatics
Onion, celery, and bay leaf; in cooking, these are called aromatics—vegetables and herbs that, when cooked in fat, add depth and impart deep flavors to cooked dishes. When slowly simmered, onion and celery provide a sweetness.
Bay leaf is different; its flavor is difficult to define; actually, it is more of a smell than a taste. It is pine-like, but not as assertive as rosemary. The aroma is more like menthol or eucalyptus. Can you taste it in chowder? You might think not, but compare a bay-infused chowder to one without, and you will notice a subtle difference. Bay leaf doesn't shout, it whispers. Listen to it.
Potatoes Give Texture and Body
Potatoes fall into three categories—starchy, all-purpose, and waxy.
- Starchy (high starch): Russet/Idaho
- All-purpose (medium starch): White, yellow, blue/purple, Yukon gold
- Waxy (low starch): Red, fingerling
Let's tackle each of these in reverse order. Waxy potatoes have one thing going for them. They are sturdy. When cooked they hold their shape, and that's about the only positive I have to offer. I'm sorry waxy-potato lovers, but red and fingerling potatoes have little taste and firmness that just doesn't belong in my steaming bowl of comfort food.
I have no doubt that frugal New Englanders will use the potato that is readily available (the all-purpose Yukons and Kennebecs grow well there). They are buttery and play nicely with the clams and bacon, but they are still not my favorite.
Perhaps I am allowing my regional bias to show, but I prefer the Idaho baking potato, the russet, for my chowder. It delivers the best honest-to-goodness potato flavor and breaks down just enough to help thicken the chowder base without relying on a heavy slurry of flour and liquid.
Of Course, The Type of Clam is Important
If you are fortunate enough to have access to fresh (live) clams, for goodness sake you must use them in this dish! I live in the Puget Sound region, and we have a cornucopia of clams available to us—manila, littlenecks, butter clams, Pacific razor clams (the sweetest most delectable clam on earth), and the outrageous-looking Pacific geoduck (it's pronounced GOO-e-duck).
But what if you can't obtain fresh clams? Please don't despair because (guess what) even the best restaurants that make great chowder use canned or frozen chopped clams. If I can't obtain fresh, my clam of choice is frozen. Why? Canned clams are pre-cooked in the canning process and tend to be rubbery and too salty.
Perfect New England Clam Chowder
- 2 (8-ounce) bottles of clam juice
- 1 pound russet potatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 2 tablespoons butter, softened
- 3 slices slab bacon, finely diced
- 2 cups onions, finely diced
- 1 1/4 cups celery (about 2 stalks), finely diced (use the more tender inner stalks)
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 pound frozen baby clams or minced clam meat, thawed and drained (reserve the clam juice)
- 1 1/4 cups half and half
- Bring the bottled clam juice and potatoes to boil in a heavy large saucepan over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low; cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Melt butter in a heavy large pot over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook until it begins to brown about 8 minutes. Add the onions, celery, bay leaf, and dried thyme. Sauté until vegetables soften, about 6 minutes. Stir in flour and cook for 2 minutes (do not allow the flour to brown). Gradually whisk in the reserved juice from the clams. Add the reserved potato mixture, the clams, and the half and half.
- Simmer chowder for 5 minutes to blend flavors, stirring frequently. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Refrigerate uncovered until cold, then cover and keep refrigerated. Bring to a simmer before serving.)
Note: This recipe was adapted from one which appeared in Bon Appetit magazine in November 2000.
A Heart-Healthy Update
When I wrote this article, my focus was solely on creating the most flavorful, luxuriously rich bowl of chowder. Since then, I have made a promise to always provide a heart-healthy version of a dish if at all possible. There will be some sacrifice of flavor and texture, but you can create a better-for-you clam chowder by making these changes:
- Replace the russet potatoes with cauliflower florets.
- Replace butter with 1 tablespoon of olive oil.
- Replace pork bacon with lean turkey bacon.
- Replace flour with a slurry of 1 tablespoon water and 2 tablespoons cornstarch.
- Replace the half-and-half with 2 percent milk.
How to Make Your Own Oyster Crackers
The perfect bowl of New England clam chowder must be accompanied by the perfect oyster cracker. Of course, you can buy them at the grocery store, but have you ever thought of making your own?
This recipe from SeriousEats takes about 80 minutes total, but only 20 minutes of that is actual "working" time. Give it a try. They're fun to make (and quality-control sampling is mandatory).
Bits of Trivia
- Herman Melville devoted an entire chapter of his book, Moby Dick, to a description of Try Pots, a chowder house in Nantucket, Massachusetts.
- Western Rhode Islanders prefer a clear (brothy) chowder.
- The State of Maine is divided both geographically and gastronomically by Penobscot Bay. Those living on one side of the bay make their clam chowder with tomatoes; those on the other side insist on milk, no tomatoes.
- In 1939 Maine state representative Cleveland Sleeper introduced a bill banning the tomato from clam chowder. Unfortunately, the bill did not pass.
© 2019 Linda Lum