This time of year, you need a hearty soup, like chowder, to keep you warm. There are many varieties, but New England clam chowder is my favorite. Once you learn the method, you can substitute the clams for corn, or replace the dairy for tomato (Manhattan clam chowder) or adjust the ingredients and seasonings to make other types of chowders. The name “chowder” is thought to come from the original cauldron-like vessel the soup was prepared in, called a chaudière in French.
Originally, chowders had just three ingredients: salt pork, hard tack (also known as ship biscuit) and fish. Other ingredients would change regionally, depending on what was available.
Salt pork (pork that has been salted for preservation) was a staple of chowders because it was an easy way to add calories as well as flavoring. Bacon is the easiest modern substitute. Start with a dry pan and diced bacon. The bacon will produce enough fat to cook the vegetables and help make the roux. Whatever type of salted pork you use, freeze it first for 10 to 15 minutes. The pork will dice much easier if partially frozen.
The rock-hard biscuit known as hard tack stored and traveled well. It would have to be reconstituted in water or other liquid to be eaten. This worked well with chowder, as the hard tack would soak up the liquid and thicken the soup. Many modern chowders use a roux (mixture of fat and flour) to thicken the soup. Add flour to the excess fat left from sautéing the vegetables to create a flavorful roux.
Fresh seafood was easy to find along the coast, adding a different dimension to the dish. Canned minced clams are an easy addition, or use about 2 to 3 pounds of fresh clams for a single recipe. Wash and steam the clams for a few minutes to open. If you want to add just a few clams, open with a paring knife and cut them into smaller pieces before adding to the chowder. Save the liquid! The juice from clams or other fresh seafood is a flavorful addition. Add the seafood at the end, as it takes only a few minutes to cook.
Clam juice is the heart of the dish. You can find it canned or bottled in the seafood aisle, or make your own by steaming fresh clams. Just strain the liquid before using. Dairy products are the other liquid added to chowder. I prefer a mixture of milk and cream, or use all milk or all cream, depending on your desired outcome. I prefer cream that has not been ultra-pasteurized. Though ultra pasteurization gives cream a longer shelf life, it lacks the flavor of regular pasteurized cream.
Onions, potatoes and celery are the mainstays of chowder. Onion adds flavor; celery adds texture, and potato adds starch to thicken the base and add filler. I like red potatoes, as they don’t fall apart after they are cooked. There are many other variations and ingredients: Bell peppers, jalapeños, mushrooms, carrots, herbs, corn and other seasonal and regional vegetables are other options to add.
Yields about 1½ quarts (4 to 5 servings)
5 to 7 slices of bacon, diced (about 5 ounces)
1 small onion, diced
2 stalks celery, small diced
4 tablespoons flour
10-ounce bottle of clam juice
3 small red potatoes, small diced
2 cloves garlic, minced or paste
1 bay leaf
1 cup whole milk (more if needed to thin soup at end)
1 cup heavy cream
2 8-ounce cans minced clams
Parsley for garnish, if desired
Cook bacon in a 2-quart or larger saucepan over medium-low heat until bacon is crisp; remove from pan and drain on paper towels. Add onions and celery to pan; sauté in drippings for 2 to 3 minutes, then add flour and stir until incorporated. Add clam juice, diced potatoes, garlic and bay leaf; stir in milk and cream. Bring to a simmer and cook until potatoes are tender (about 15 to 20 minutes). Add minced clams and the juice from the can. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove bay leaf and top with rendered bacon and minced parsley, if desired.
Manhattan Clam Chowder: Replace the milk and cream with equal parts diced tomatoes and tomato juice.
Seafood Chowder: Replace the clams with your favorite seafood, typically cod, but other fish can be used as well.
Brook Harlan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He is a culinary arts instructor at the Columbia Area Career Center.