Saturday, December 19, 2015

Massachusetts Bay Clam Chowder A.K.A. New England Clam Chowder

When I realized I have not essayed The Clam Chowder, I felt remiss and, Dear Reader, am rectifying the omission.

From The Gold Cook Book by Louis P. De Gouy (Thirteenth Printing, 1960)

Following food trails in quest of food origins is always adventurous and, as often as not, the trail itself comes to an end at a picturesque but totally unexpected source.

Whence comes our chowder—that hot, savory and substantial dish that heartens us on those chill days of early fall and winter? Is chowder an Indian name, like so many others borne by our native samp, the succotash?

No, the trail in quest of chowder origins leads us over the vast waters of the Atlantic, and begins first in the little hamlets and villages of Brittany, famed fishing sea-coast of France. There, in those so-specialized fishing villages, originated a community enterprise in the shape of faire la chaudière, or “prepare the cauldron.”

After a fishing expedition, when the men were back home from the sea with their catches, it became the custom to celebrate with a huge pot or cauldron of soup or stew, to which each manor family contributed some ingredients. Some brought fish, others vegetables, still others seasonings and spices—and everything went into the pot, all together and at once.

[Step number one] In return, each family participated equally in this steaming pot, around which gathered, too, much festivity, quite after our own fashion of a village fair or festival, or perhaps like our first Thanksgiving dinner.

Step number two along this interesting trail occurred when many of these French fisherfolk crossed the Atlantic to settle in Newfoundland, bringing, of course, their chaudière with them.

Step number three is only a little distance farther on, either in New England or across that narrow link of water called Long Island Sound, each claimed as the original home of the chowder. For by this time the French word meaning “big stew pot” had been contracted and modified into the more Yankeefied “chowder.”

Naturally the New Englander, with an abundance of seafood at his very doorstep, continued mightily in the chowder tradition. He made it of fish, he made it of clams he made it of oysters—or he made it of all three, and added other little seasoning tidbits, such as diced salt pork, chopped bacon, thyme and other fragrances out of the spice cabinet. Now and again he added milk—or, still later, and lower down the Middle Atlantic seaboard, he began to add tomatoes. Thus started the famous food controversy, still—if—ever—to be settled, as to whether chowder should be made with tomatoes.

Alas, what crimes have been committed in the name of chowder! Dainty chintz-draped tea rooms, charity bazaars, church suppers, summer hotels, canning factories—all have shamelessly travestied one of America’s noblest institutions; yet while clams and onions last, the chowder shall not die, neither shall it sink into the limbo of denatured, emasculated forgotten things.

Clam chowder, mind you, is not a bisque, not a Parisian potage, not a delicate broth for invalids. It matters not whether you belong to the milk or the water party in the chowder cult—clams and onions and salt pork are the fundamentals on which to concentrate. Much has been said about onions, and much must be said of onions and clams when chowder is in the balance.

Also called New England Clam Chowder

“Take a dozen clams and 1 small onion,” says a certain undeservedly popular cook book, taking the name of clam chowder in vain.

A dozen clams, forsooth! Take 4, or 5 dozen good soft clams, if your family is a small one. Men and women of Rhode Island and Massachusetts Bay never sat down to less than a peck of clams apiece. Then take 6 large onions and ½ pound of the finest salt pork. Cut the pork in half-inch dice and brown them slowly in an iron skillet, then add the sliced onions to the pork fat and let them turn to golden—brown rings, meanwhile wash the live clams, using a brush to get rid of all sand, and heat them slowly in a pan till the shells open. Save the juice, cut off the long necks and remove the coarse membrane, then chop half of the clams, not too finely, and keep the rest whole. Put pork, onions, clam juice, and I quart of boiling water in a kettle, add 3 large peeled tomatoes, 1 bunch of leeks cut finely, 2 stalks of celery, finely minced, 2 young carrots, diced, 1 tablespoon of chopped parsley, ½ teaspoon of thyme leaves, 2 large bay leaves, I teaspoon of salt, ½ generous teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper, a slight grating of nutmeg, and let the mixture boil up smartly. Then reduce to the simmering point, and put in 3 large potatoes, peeled and cut in neat small dice. Prepare a roux by browning 2 rounded tablespoons of flour in 2 rounded tablespoons of butter, and make it creamy and smooth by stirring in broth from the kettle. Put all the clams into the kettle before the potatoes begin to soften, and simmer slowly until the potatoes are just tender, then stir in the roux and 2 large pilot biscuits coarsely crumbled, and add I tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce and a dash of Tabasco sauce. Serve sizzling hot.

If preferred, omit the tomatoes and add instead 1 cup of scalded sweet cream.

So ends the Master Chef's version of clam chowder. My New England pal, Robert, who  turned 90 years old in 2015, informs me that clam chowder, as prepared by his mother, had clams, salt pork, and some potatoes. So let us begin there.

New England Clam Chowder - A Updated  Easy Kitchen Version

51 to 56 ozs. can Clams (and the juice in the can)
46 ozs. can Clam Juice
16 ozs. dry white wine
8 ozs. salt pork
48 ozs. onions (3 pounds)
64 ozs. potatoes (4 pounds)
32 ozs. heavy cream
2 tsp. salt (or to taste)
1 tsp. white pepper (or to taste)
1 dash of Srichacha Sauce (or your favorite)
2 bouquet garni of thyme, bay leaf and parsley, tied together
Oyster crackers or a sourdough boule

Ingredient Note: Must use fresh bouquet garni ingredients.
Batterie de Cuisine - 2 large stockpots. Kitchen spoon, soup ladle.

Using a can opener, make two slits on top of the can of clams, one to pour from, the other to allow air to get in to prevent back pressure. I make the slits 180 degrees opposite each other. Add the canned clam juice, wine and bouquet garni to stockpot #1. Cover and bring the pot to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer gently 15 to 20 minutes, covered. This was about 3 quarts of liquid. I simplify the infusing by straining out the bouquet garni ingredients with a strainer. into a separate pot. Saves clean up of the muslin bag.

While the bouqui garni stock is coming to a simmer infusing the clam and wine, do the following work. Slice the salt pork into ⅜ inch diced cubes. In stockpot #2, on medium-low heat, render the salt pork with 1/2 cup of water. Rendering the fat should take about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on how high the flame is and the size of the pot. As the water evaporates, the pork will render it's fat. You can tell when the fat is rendering by the change in the sizzling sound in the pot. Once the cubes are golden brown, remove them with a slotted spoon.

Strain the solids from the (now) clam stock pot #1 into pot #3. Cover and reserve. You may want a hot pad under this pot if there is not enough room on the stove.

Cut the 'taters into bite size cubes add vegetable oil to the rendered fat in pot #2. Raise the heat and add the 'taters. Fry them for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently. When fried, remove to the clam stock pot #1. Cover. 

Add cooking oil to pot #2. Add the sliced onions to pot #2. Raise the heat to high for up to 5 to 7 minutes. Stir like a madman. Wilt the onions, but do not color them. When the onions are wilted, add the bouquet garni infused clam juices and the 'taters.  Stir well. Bring the pot to a boil, lower to a simmer, covered, for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes check the potatoes for doneness, and the stock for salt. Correct seasonings. Add white pepper, clams and liquid from the can, salt pork, cream and hot sauce. Return to the lowest of simmers. Taste for salt and pepper again. Cover to heat through, 5 to 7 minutes.

Serve with Oyster Crackers and minced parsley. To be fancy, serve the chowder in a sourdough boule. Slice the top, pull out the inner bread, leaving a bowl and serve the chowder in it. 

For those folks, who, do not want the Oyster Cracker or croutons, but prefer a thickened chowder, the use of a Bechamel Sauce is advised. This would undoubtedly seem a travesty of good chow-dah to some, but is put down here for authenticities sake. This author does not use it, as the 'taters will release their starch and give a good thickness to the chowder.

The above makes about 12 pounds of food.  Approximately 24 servings, depending on appetites.