I'm forever partial to New England Clam and my eyes still get misty at memories of Irish Seafood, but I give props to a subtly-spiced Manhattan and never turn down a bowl of hot Corn. We could debate the pros and cons of various chowdahs 'til salmon grow legs and start walking up-stream, but there's really only one thing required of it to make it authentic: it must be made in a big, hot pot.
See, it's all in the name. The root of the word is probably French, from chaudiere ("pot"), which is itself derived from chaud ("hot"). The theory is that Breton fishermen, working off the coast of Newfoundland, brought a version of their bouillabaisse to North America. (Or it could be a down-on-the-docks bastardization of "jowter," an Old English word for fishmonger, which tickles me, perhaps because it is fun to holler the word "jowter!" Try it.)
Anywho. I know what you're thinking: Thanks for the etymology lesson, Missy, but gumbo's made in a big, hot pot and that don't make it chowder! Point taken. So there's another old tyme element of chowder, as Molly O'Neill points out in American Food Writing: "the word used to imply layering of ingredients."
In The Frugal Housewife (1830), Lydia Maria Child told us, once and for all, "How to Make a Chowder." She said layers, so I did layers ... well, my version. I layered my chowder from bottom to top, one layer of each ingredient -- instead of Lydia's lasagna of fish-cracker-onions-potatoes, repeated until reaching the top.
Lydia's chowder starts with salt pork (I used bacon, watched over with appropriate gravity by my kid sister), Lydia's cooks in a kettle hung high over the fire (I used a gas stove, somewhere between the numbers 4 and 6 on the knob), she swears that 4 pounds of fish are enough for four or five people (um, I'd say! At $9.99 a lb. for some meaty monkfish I bought 2 lbs. for 8 ladies, plus 2 dozen precious little clams).
The inauthenticities don't stop there: her potatoes were "sliced as thin as a four-pence," my fingerlings varied somewhere between a silver dollar and a button on a thick wool coat. She thickened it up with layers of crackers and a "bowl full of flour and water"; I added cream, milk, and a bit of flour, judiciously. As a homage to the cracker, we half-submerged a toasted baguette slice in each bowl just before serving. For further richness, my base was a luscious lobster broth that I whipped up with a couple exoskeletons that I've stored in the freezer for just such an occasion since August -- a broth made with stewed tomatoes and dry white wine, a nod, in a very roundabout way, to Lydia's suggestion that "a cup of Tomato catsup is very excellent" in the chowder and "some people put in a cup of beer."
The result was, to hazard a guess, better than Lydia ever made it, and a rare moment to feel grateful we live in these abundant times. The scene was near-perfect: women gathered 'round from some of my favorite cities -- Dublin, St. Paul, San Francisco -- and eight steaming bowls of briny, delicately creamy broth and plump chunks of perfectly cooked fish and potatoes.
Seafood Chowder, Relatively Light and Richly Flavored
2 lbs. fingerling potatoes, sliced into coins (you may substitute chunks of
1 medium onion, diced
1 leek, sliced thin up to the base of the green fronds
4 cups rich lobster broth
½ cup flour
½ cup cream
1 cup full-fat milk
2 lbs. monkfish, sliced into bite-size chunks
2 dozen small little-neck clams, scrubbed clean
2 tbsp. butter
Two big pinches of salt
Baguette slices, toasted with olive oil until crisp
1. Fry the bacon slices over medium-high heat in your biggest, deepest pot. When they’re brown and crispy, remove and reserve.
2. Toss in the potatoes, onions, and leeks and fry in the bacon fat for two minutes.
3. Lower heat to medium. Add the stock (it should cover the vegetables with about an inch to spare). Add cream and milk and bring to a simmer. Sprinkle in the flour. Simmer until potatoes are al dente.
4. Add monkfish chunks and cook at a gentle boil for five minutes. Add bacon bits. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the clams. Float the butter in the broth. Check the seasonings. Add salt.
5. Cover the pot and allow to cook for five minutes, then check if the clams have opened. If not, replace top and check after another two minutes. Once 90% of the clams have opened, turn off the heat.
6. Serve the chowder with a slice of baguette toast half-submerged in the bowl and at least two little clams presented prettily on top.Serves 10.