I have loved chowder, especially clam chowder, for as long as I can remember. Its creamy warmth combined with a slightly salty tang and the taste of clams has always been a favorite. So, when we were in Plymouth I made sure to have it as often as I could.
When we returned home,I did a bit of research on chowder, the quintessential New England dish, and found that for New Englanders this food is as powerful as Proust's madeleine.
"For New Englanders, and those who would be ones, chowder is a sea swell of the soul. A bowl of chowder (never a cup) evokes a forgotten day years ago, a slanted shaft of light on a wooden table, a stove-top pot steaming as the languorous hours of an autumn afternoon drift toward revelation. chowder recalls a breeze-swept shore, a celebration of friends and walkers-by decked out in rain gear and wool, seasoned with salt and sand and shocks of briny kelp.For Henry David Thoreau, chowder was the culmination of a day in his beloved Concord woods; for Herman Melville, it sang of the friendship of unlikely shipmates discovering the "fishiest of all fishy places," a weathered tavern in he byways of Nantucket. A simmering bowl, a shore-side meal, chowder is sustenance in its most elemental form--sustenance of body and mind--a marker of hearth and home, community family and culture. So many liquid shades of recall, chowder charts the shoals and eddies of the New England shore and points the way home." (Robert S. Cox and Jacob Walker. A History of Chowder. Four Centuries of A New England Meal., p. 11)
At home , I tried to recreate the creamy chowder we had enjoyed. The best recipe was in Jasper White's Summer Shack Cookbook. This recipe may seem involved, but the results are worth whatever effort you have to expend.
CREAMY CAPE COD CLAM CHOWDER
(Makes 3 quarts; serves 12 as an appetizer or 6 to 8 as a main course)
10 pounds small quahogs or large cherry-stone clams
2 cups water
4 ounces meaty salt pork, rind removed and cut into small (1/3-inch) dice
2 TBS unsalted butter
2 medium yellow onions (about 18 ounces), cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 stalks celery (4 ounces),cut into 1/3-inch dice
5 t 6 springs fresh thyme, leaves removed and chopped (1 tablespoon)
1 large dried bay leaf
2 pounds Yukon Gold, Maine PEI or other all-purpose potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2- to 3/4-inch dice
2 cups heavy ream
Freshly ground black pepper
Kosher or sea salt if needed
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
All chowders improve after they are made so allow at least an hour from the time the chowder is cooked until it is served. You can make the chowder 1 or 2 days in advance. Reheat it slowly; never let it boil.
Scrub the clams and rinse well Place them in a large pot, add the water, cover and turn the heat to high Once you see a little steam escape from the pot let the clams cook for about 5 minutes. Remove the lid and quickly move the clams around in the pot so they will cook evenly, then cover and cook for 5 minutes more, or until the clams open.
Pour off the broth and reserve. After it has settled a bit,strain the broth, leaving the bottom 1/2 inch of broth (and sediment) in the container. You should have about 4 cups. Remove the clams from the shells, place in a bowl, and refrigerate until cold.
Dice the clams into small (1/3- to 1/2-inch) pieces. Cover and refrigerate.
Rinse and dry the pot and heat over low heat. Add the salt pork and cook until crispy and brown. Add the butter, onions, garlic, celery, thyme and bay leaf and saute, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, for about 10 minutes, until the onions are softened but not browned.
Add the potatoes and 4 cups reserved clam broth the broth should just barely cover the potatoes; if it doesn't,add more broth or water. Turn the heat to high, cover the pot, and boil vigorously for about 10 minutes,until the potatoes are soft on the outside but still firm in the center. Smash a few potatoes against the side of the pot and stir them into the chowder to lightly thicken it.
Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the cream and diced clams. Season with black pepper; you may not need salt (the clams usually have enough of their own). If you are serving the chowder within the hour, just let it sit and "cure." Otherwise, let cool to room temperature and refrigerate it; cover it after it has chilled.
When ready to serve, reheat the chowder slowly over medium heat; do not let it boil. Ladle into cups or bowls and sprinkle with the parsley.
CLAM CHOWDER With Oyster Crackers*
*Oyster crackers are readily available in most parts of the country, but the more traditional accompaniment is the Common Cracker. Again, Jasper White provides an informative commentary.
"Common crackers are small round crackers (1 to 2 inches in diameter) made with a yeast dough,which gives them a rich flavor and a hollow center. Traditionally they split open with a fork or knife and the halves are then buttered and toasted in the oven (about 15 minutes at 350 degrees F). They are served as a side to chowder adding a much needed crunch. These crackers have been made commercially for more than two hundred years, so nobody really makes them at home anymore. Common crackers, along with the famous Pilot cracker (Nabisco) and "hard bread" of maritime Canada, are deeply rooted in the history of chowder making. They are the descendants of hardtack, or ship's biscuits, which were nothing more than baked bricks made of flour and water.Hardtack was a necessity, because it was the only way that flour would keep from rotting on ships or in damp coastal areas. In early days, crackers were added right into the chowder; as potatoes became popular, the crackers worked their way out of the bowl and onto the side, where they are still served as a crispy garnish for chowders and soups."
If you want to try Common Crackers, check out the Vermont Country Store which will happily send them to you.
Tomato season will soon be upon us. Then it will be time to make this beautiful pasta dish.
(serves 4 to 6)
About 4 cups ice cubes
1/2 medium onion, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons tightly packed basil leaves
1 teaspoon each tightly packed fresh marjoram and Italian parsley
1 clove garlic
Generous pinch of hot red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 oil-packed anchovy filets, rinsed
1/3 cup brine-cured olives such as Kalamata pitted and coarsely chopped
3 pounds richly flavored tomatoes, unpeeled, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1/2 cup crumbled ricotta salata cheese
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 pound spaghetti
Abundant boiling salted water
1/3 cup tightly packed arugula, coarsely chopped
Put half the ice cubes in a medium bowl,add the onion and top with the rest of the cubes. Cover with cold water. Refrigerate 20 to 30 minutes.Drain. (Chilling the onion in ice water makes it crisp and mild.)
Mince together the herbs, garlic, and hot pepper with the salt. Turn into a big serving bowl.Add the anchovies, olives, tomatoes, vinegar, cheese and oil and blend in the tomato paste. Taste for seasoning, add a little freshly ground black pepper if needed.
Cook the pasta in rapidly boiling salted water, stirring often, until it is "al dente" (barely tender but firm to the bite). Drain in a colander.
Put the pasta pot back over medium-high heat. Spoon most of the sauce's liquid that has formed into the pot. Stir in the drained pasta and cook a few minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed. Turn the pasta into bowl with the sauce and add the drained onion and fresh arugula.
I love reading and collecting community cookbooks. They offer not only recipes, but portraits of the communities which produced them. They give us glimpses-sometimes charming, sometimes not so appealing- of a period of time and a particular place. Celia Sack of Ominvore Books sent one such old cookbook from The Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama, dated 1919.
The verso of the title page of Culinary Crinkles had a marvelous quote from John Ruskin answering the question "What does Cookery Mean?"
"It means the knowledge of all fruit and herbs, and balms and spices, and of all that is healing and sweet in fields and groves, and savory in meats.
"It means carefulness and inventiveness and readiness of appliance.
"It means the economy of your great grandmother and the science of modern chemists.
"It means much tasting and no wasting: it means English thoroughness and French art,and Arabian hospitality; and it means in fine, that you are to be perfectly, and always, ladies---loaf givers.*"
(from Ruskin's Ethics of the Dust)
* In Sesame and Lilies Ruskin had proposed that lady derived from "bread-giver" or "loaf-giver."
One can forgive what we would regard as sexist language;he was a man of his Victorian times
Did you have any idea that were engaged in such a lofty enterprise? Me neither.
Every few years I find myself returning to the east coast. The lure of the sea is irresistible and part of the draw is the marvelous seafood that one can find in abundance everywhere on the Atlantic seaboard. When I'm there, I try to eat every dish that I have dreamed of in the intervening years since my last visit.
This year we found a new purveyor of beautiful seafood in Plymouth Massachusetts, Wood's Seafood. Located on Town Wharf, Wood's offers a selection of fresh fish and lobster to locals and visitors almost every day of the year. Their dining room is basic, but offers a lovely view of the harbor and Mayflower II. The food is simply prepared and the fresh taste of these gifts from the sea can be appreciated in every bite. I can't eat the pictures, but I can re-imagine the taste of these amazingly good meals.