Growing up in Marblehead as I did, fish and seafood were omnipresent in our lives. The Town was still a centre for fishing, and the wharf at the foot of State Street still landed catches of fish every day. Just at the foot of the street stood McClain’s Fish Market. When Mom wanted good fish, she would send us there. Like all good fish markets, it smelled nautical but not fishy. There were a couple of shelves with jars of tartar sauce and the like, but the fish counter at the rear of the store was the centre of attention.
There are three kinds of New England-style chowder: fish, clam, and corn. The chowder I made last night was corn chowder, but I think that people need to know how to make all three.
In preparation, let me state right now that, although it’s not true that the State of Maine once made it illegal to call any soup with tomatoes in it a “chowder”, my Mom never made a fish, corn, or clam soup with tomatoes. While Manhattan “clam chowder” may be tasty, I don’t consider it a chowder, properly speaking.
I will start out with corn chowder. If you make it without salt pork, it is vegetarian. It’s also amazingly filling, and very tasty.
To start, put around two tablespoons of butter into a large pot. When it’s melted, dump in three medium onions, chopped.
Does anyone else find chopping onions a chore? I used to, but when I discovered Julia Child’s method of chopping onions, I stopped thinking of chopping onions as a chore and found it a breeze. Here’s how.
Peel the onion, and cut in half lengthways through the root and the top. Lay one half cut side down on the chopping board. Slice it lengthways nearly to the root end, but not quite all the way. Then carefully cut the onion half horizontally one or two times. Finally, slice the onion from the stem end, and the onion will just fall into dice, naturally. When you’ve gotten as close to your fingers as you want, place the end down on the cutting board and chop it a few times. Hey presto, a diced onion.
Now put your chopped onion into the pot and sauté it until translucent. Meanwhile, peel and cut your potatoes. Cut them lengthways, then cut each half into halves again. Finally, cut each quarter into 1/4″ slices. Use around 5 medium to large potatoes. As much as you might be tempted to leave the skins on, don’t! Chowder requires peeled potatoes for perfection.
Put the potatoes into the pot and immediately pour water in to cover them. No more than that, please! Add salt, pepper, and some thyme (a tablespoon is too much but a teaspoon may not be enough—use your discretion). Remember that the potatoes will absorb salt so you may want to add more at this stage or make sure that your table has a full salt grinder on it. Bring to a boil then turn the heat down, and simmer. Open three cans of corn kernels. You could use fresh, if you have the patience to cut the kernels off the cobs, but I never have had that much patience. Add them to the pot, cover. and simmer until the potatoes are cooked through.
Now there are two (at least) schools of chowdercookery. The first one only requires full-fat milk, and the other requires some sort of thickener. The people who make canned New England clam chowder are of the second school, but it often tastes floury to me, not milky. My Mom was of the first school, so her recipe concludes with simply adding full-fat milk to the chowder, as much as you like, and stirring it in and heating it through. You will want the chowder to have a milky-white colour but not caused by as much milk as there is water in the pot. Use your discretion and your taste.
I decided to thicken our corn chowder with a roux. If you’ve been following my posts, you know how to make a roux. Melt butter in a shallow fry pan, then stir tablespoons of flour into the butter and stir them around until the butter/flour mixture is a paste. Spoon the roux into the chowder before you put the milk in. Then bring the fire up a bit and stir the roux into the chowder until it’s disappeared. Then add the milk. Stir the chowder until it’s thickened. It will not be as thick as canned chowder is, but it will be thicker than liquid milk.
Now, for the non-vegetarians and the piscivores (love that word, even if I don’t much care for fish), there is clam and fish chowder. The beginning and end of the recipes are different; the middle is the same.
Start off with a pound of salt pork, cut into slivers. The salt pork should be fatty and not lean. Place the salt pork into your pot and, over a relatively slow fire, try the pork until the fat has bled out of it and the pork is crisp. Remove the pork with a slotted spoon and, if you have no worries about cholesterol, drain it onto a paper towel and offer it as an appetiser. It’ll be crisp, oily, salty, and kind of like pork scratchings. We used to love it, but with the health concerns of today I wouldn’t dare eat it. I would discard it.
Now sauté the onions in the fat from the pork, and follow the recipe above with potatoes and water and seasonings.
For clam chowder, open around four small cans of Snow’s Minced Clams. No other will do. Chuck the clams and the liquid into the chowder. I suppose that if you had them, whole clams cut up might be OK. Of course, you wouldn’t get the clam liquid in that, and you’d have to deal with chopping up the clams, which I personally don’t feel comfortable doing. There are parts of clams that you should eat, and some that you shouldn’t, and I can’t tell them apart. My Mom never used whole clams so I don’t either.
Now follow the rest of the recipe by adding milk and heating it through. Thicken it if you want in the same way as I wrote above.
Fish chowder is different again. Follow the clam chowder recipe until you get to chucking in the clams. Cut several boneless haddock fillets into small pieces, and put them in the simmering chowder. They should turn white in around 5 minutes or so, which means they are poached and ready. Add the milk, heat it through, and serve immediately.
If you can get them, common crackers are the accompaniment of choice to chowders. The Vermont Country Store sells them. I have a great friend, Sue, in Connecticut, who sends me a CARE package from time to time, in which there is a box of common crackers. They were originally baked to provide carbohydrates to sailors, and used to be packed into barrels on the ship. If they remained dry, they did not spoil and were perfect for long sea voyages. Split a few crackers and put some halves into each bowl. As the chowder is probably going to be salty enough, it’s less desirable to use saltines or oyster crackers. But, your mileage may vary, so add whatever you like.
My brother and sister, along with me, do not like fish very much. We ate too much of it when we were young, so we don’t choose to eat it now. However, my Dad loved fish chowder, and when he was in the nursing home from 2001-2003, fish chowder was never on the menu. So, when I returned to Marblehead from England, I would cook fish chowder and bring him a bowl of it when I visited. No matter whether he’d just eaten or not, he’d ask me to heat it up for him. I’d bring common crackers with me, and he’d split a couple, put them in the bowl, and eat with relish. He is no longer with us, but I’ll always remember him when I make a pot of chowder. It was my gift to him, and I think he liked it better than any other gift I could have brought him.