Take the chill out with chowder

By on January 25, 2012

With the recent cold snap, my gastronomic thoughts turned to satisfying and comforting chowders.

When I think of a chowder, I think about a multitude of preparations. I would dare say every fishing village has its own recipe. So I’m going out on a limb here and making two types of clam chowders — a Hatteras style and a New England style.

I don’t want to offend any Hatteras Islanders who grew up teething on Hatteras clam chowder, so I’m calling mine Rosie’s Generic Outer Banks Chowder. I didn’t want to get e-mails telling me I don’t know what I’m doing.

In case you’re wondering about the difference between the two chowders, Hatteras style has a clear broth base and New England style uses a cream base. There is also a third basic type of clam chowder — Manhattan, which is a tomato-based chowder. Personally, I’m not that fond of the Manhattan style, so I’m leaving that one out.

Before I get to the chowders, I think a crash course in clams is in order. I started researching clams when I received an email from a dear friend, E.A. Marion, inquiring about clam chowders: “Rosie, there are lots of types of clams out there. What are the differences? What type of clams do you buy?”

I rightly assumed Marion wouldn’t be on the Pacific Northwest Coast, harvesting her own geoducks (pronounced gooey ducks), the largest burrowing clam in the world. That would leave Marion, and us, for that matter, with the East Coast quahog, (pronounced KO-hog), Mercenaria mercenaria, also known as a hard clam, round clam, or chowder clam.

The name quahog comes from the Narraganset Indian word poquauhock. The Indians used the clam as food and the shell for ornaments and tools. Beads were made from the shell and strung together and were used as wampum, or shell money, hence the species name is similar to the Latin name for commerce.

Those with purple spots were twice as valuable as the white ones. Quahogs include both littlenecks and cherrystones. The difference is size and price. The littlenecks are small quahogs about an inch or two across and are named for Littleneck Bay on Long Island, N.Y., once an important clamming center. Cherrystone clams are 3 inches or so and are named for Cherrystone Creek, Va.

When we went to Billy’s Seafood to pick up clams, a dozen littlenecks were $3.50. A dozen cherrystones, twice the size, were also $3.50. We bought the Cherrystones. More clam for the money. I went to the horse’s mouth and asked Judy Beasley at Billy’s Seafood about the different clam names. Judy explained that clams range in size from littlenecks (1-2 inches) to middlenecks to topnecks to cherrystones to chowder clams (greater than 4 inches). Littlenecks are generally farm-raised so they can be harvested while still small.

As a rule, the smaller the clam, the more tender and sweeter it is. You’d want littlenecks if you’re eating them raw. They’re also good steamed or grilled. As for cherrystones, I’d use them in a chowder, but you can roast or steam them. The larger and tougher Chowder clams are still very flavorful and should be chopped, diced, or minced and used in chowders, fritters, or dips.

So, once one has fresh clams, how does one proceed?

I put my clams in the freezer overnight. When the clam juice inside the shell freezes, it expands and semi-pops the clam open. Sometimes, if you get a tough clam, you still may need to pry some shells open. Next, thinly slice the clams while they’re still frozen.

Rosie’s Generic Outer Banks Style Clam Chowder
2 carrots, peeled and diced
3 celery stalks, diced
1 large onion, diced
2 potatoes, diced (Keep in water to prevent oxidation or dice right before you add to the pot.)
2 small slabs of pork fatback
1 dozen cherrystone clams, chopped
2 cups chicken broth
Fresh parsley
Fresh thyme
Freshly ground pepper

Fry fatback over medium heat for 3-4 minutes. Add in vegetables and water to cover. Turn heat to low and barely simmer, cooking until potatoes are just tender. Add in chopped clams with clam juice and two cups of chicken broth. Heat through. Serve with fresh parsley and thyme and a few grinds of pepper.

Rosie’s New England Style Clam Chowder
1 51 oz. can chopped clams
6 strips bacon, chopped and fried
1 large onion, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
2 large baking potatoes chopped in 1/4″ dice
3 cups cream
2 tsp fresh thyme
3 TB fresh parsley
3 TB butter
3 TB flour
sherry to taste
bay leaf
1 cup frozen peas
freshly ground salt and pepper

Sauté bacon until crisp. Remove bacon, saving drippings, and set aside. Drain clams through cheesecloth, reserving the liquid. Thoroughly rinse clams and set aside. Add chopped onion to bacon drippings and sauté to sweat, about a minute. Add in chopped celery, carrot, and potatoes. Pour in reserved strained clam liquid to cover. Add thyme and bay leaf and cook over low heat until potatoes are almost tender.

While potatoes are cooking, make a roux out of the butter and flour. Melt butter, add in flour, and cook for 2-3 minutes over low heat to get the raw taste out of the flour. Add roux to the chowder and cook a minute or so. Then add in cream until chowder is the consistency you want.

Now, what do you do if your chowder isn’t thick enough? I make what is called a buerre manié, or “kneaded butter,” which is simply a mixture of equal parts butter and flour. Start with a tablespoon each butter and flour and work them together by hand. Continue kneading until the flour is totally incorporated into the butter. Then slip it into your chowder, cook, and stir to thicken.

Add in clams and peas and heat through. Finish with a splash of sherry. Test taste and season with freshly grated salt and pepper if needed. Add in bacon, reserving a few tablespoons with which to top chowder. Top bowls of chowder with reserved bacon pieces and parsley.

The more I cook, the more I appreciate the fact that there are no hard-and-fast rules (except if you’re baking, because that’s all chemistry, and you must use precise measurements and temperatures.). Now that you’re armed with chowder basics, you can make you own chowders and pick and choose ingredients as you like.

Be creative. And always remember to have fun in the kitchen. When I cook, the world is my oyster, or clam, in this case.

See more at Rosie’s blog: Kitchens Are Monkey Business »

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