Chow down (soup kitchen)

These days there really isn’t a clear definition of what makes a chowder. Not surprising, I guess, as a lot of people like the taste but don’t like the history. Still, I think it’s nice to use the origin to provide a basis for what the finished dish should resemble to be called a chowder.

Once upon a time there were two ingredients that were absolutely necessary for a soup to be a chowder. Those two ingredients were pork (usually fatback or salt pork, occasionally bacon) and biscuits or crackers.

Yum, right? OK, let’s get into it a bit more.

See, like many popular dishes chowders were originally Poor People (aka peasant) dishes. Pork fat was relatively cheap and common. Biscuits and crackers get stale, and this allowed a use for food otherwise almost inedible. Now most chowders were made by folk near the sea so they frequently were fish based, but that wasn’t always true.

Anyway, if I wanted to make a historical chowder, I’d do something like, oh:

First lay some Onions to keep the Pork from burning
Because in Chouder there can be not turning;
Then lay some Pork in slices very thing,
Thus you in Chouder always must begin.
Next lay some Fish cut crossways very nice
Then season well with Pepper, Salt, and Spice;
Parsley, Sweet-Marjoram, Savory, and Thyme,
Then Biscuit next which must be soak’d some Time.
Thus your Foundation laid, you will be able
To raise a Chouder, high as Tower of Babel;
For by repeating o’er the Same again,
You may make a Chouder for a thousand men.
Last a Bottle of Claret, with Water eno; to smother ’em,
You’ll have a Mess which some call Omnium gather ’em.

(50 Chowders by Jasper White, this one allegedly coming from the September 23, 1751 Boston Evening Post.)

Look at it again and I’ll translate. Layer the bottom of your soup kettle chopped onion. Put a layer of bacon strips on top of that. Add a layer of your fish, and season with parsely, marjoram, savory, thyme, salt, and pepper. Add a layer of soaked biscuits. Repeat till the pot is full (or you have as much as you’re going to want.) Pour a bottle of wine (by the way, claret at the time was a dark blush sweet wine) and finish by adding water till all is covered. It doesn’t say how long to cook, but I’d go 30 minutes to an hour on it.

That actually sounds pretty good, and I could get away with serving it once in a while in my hypothetical restaurant, but I’d get a lot of odd looks if I called it a chowder.

That’s because most people (unless you’re from Illinois) only think of one dish when chowder is mentioned – clam chowder.

In the south, they fight over what’s the true Q (BBQ) or REAL chili. In the northeast it’s clam chowder. Manhattan or New England, not to mention Rhode Island or Outer Banks – each has a faithful set of followers who will tell you the others are demon’s brew. Tasty, maybe, but definitely not Real Clam Chowder. Fortunately, I’m not trying to make my place in that area (I’ll have trouble when I get to chili, though). No, around “here” if you don’t add the label, clam chowder is New England style. Creamy white chowder, no tomatoes, no clear broth, just thick, rich dairy-based soup.

Let’s make a good clam chowder (New England style), ok? I’m going to add some historical touches because, well, because they taste good.

Start by dicing up a quarter-pound of salt pork. Put it in the bottom of a pan to start rendering. Oh, wait, new digression.

To render the fat, turn your heat LOW. You don’t want to cook the pork so much as you want to melt the fat. As a bonus the bit of meat present (and inevitably a small part of the fat) will turn into crispy nuggets of OMG THAT’S GOOD… ahem. Delicious flavor nuggets.

So anyway, once the fat’s rendered, add a diced onion and sweat it (same heat, really – you’re extracting the flavor and softening the onion, not browning it) till it’s soft.

While this is going on, soak half a dozen day-old (or older) biscuits in 3 cups of milk. We’ll come back to this.

Now you’re going to add the juice from about 3 pounds of clams. 3 pounds? Yes – this isn’t milk soup with a bit of clam meat, clams are supposed to DOMINATE this dish. Anyway, you should have a bit over 2 cups of juice. You want 2 1/2 cups, and you can finish the count with purchased clam juice or water depending on what you can get hold of. Pour it in and turn up the heat – you’re aiming for a simmer.

While the pot is heating, peel and cube (about 1/2 inch) three medium potatoes. Add them to the clam juice and let it go for about fifteen minutes. The potatoes won’t quite be “done” (fully tender) but it’s time to add our next steps.

Remember the biscuits and milk? Time to add them. Stir the biscuits thoroughly in the milk so they’re pretty well broken up and add the mix to the pot. Add the clams, and bring everything back to a simmer. Stir frequently as it’s going to get thick enough now to burn if you let it sit. Once everything is hot add two or three tablespoons butter (as though this needs any more richness) and let it melt. Finish with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

1/4 pound salt pork, diced.
1 medium onion, diced.
6 dried (day-old) biscuits.
3 cups milk.
3 potatoes, peeled and cubed (1/2 inch).
3 pounds clams, reserve juice.
2 1/2 cups reserved clam juice (supplement with water to measure).
3 tablespoons butter.
Salt and Pepper to taste.

Render salt pork.
Add and sweat onion till soft.
Separately, soak biscuits in milk.
Add clam juice (and water), potatoes, and bring to simmer.
Simmer for 15 minutes.
Stir biscuits in milk till completely broken up, then add to pot.
Add clams, heat to simmer, stirring frequently to avoid burning.
Add butter and let it melt.
Salt and pepper to taste.


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