Thursday, October 25, 2007

Hey jowter, give us some chowder!

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

You can substitute other meaty white fish for monkfish and skip the clams, if you’d like. Likewise, the bacon’s not crucial – start with 2 tbsp. of butter instead. If you don’t happen to have a saffron-scented homemade lobster broth on hand, try this with a homemade or store-bought fish or chicken stock, and boost the flavor with a teaspoon or two of minced thyme, a pinch of crushed red pepper, and a few threads of saffron, if you’re feeling luxurious, all tossed in with the potatoes. You may also want to add freshly ground black pepper towards the end of cooking.

6 slices all-natural applewood-smoked bacon
2 lbs. fingerling potatoes, sliced into coins (you may substitute chunks of Yukon gold or similar)
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.


LunaPierCook said...

Chowder is one of my favorite dishes, be it a fish chowder or, here in Michigan, a good corn chowder. There's just something about it that makes it a great comfort food all on its own.

(pssst ... Nora, the second image isn't showing up, neither in the feed or on the actual page!)

Ann said...

That is the most adorable foodie drawing EVER. I may have to steal this idea. But I'll be ever so subtle about it and nobody will know. :-)

Pieds Des Anges (Kyla) said...

I love Lydia Maria Child's writing, novels included. How awesome is your chowder picture? Wish I had the gift of drawing, I'd steal the idea too.

Pieds Des Anges (Kyla) said...

Gah, pressed "publish" by accident. Love your blog, the bundt idea is great.

emiglia said...

Just found your blog today from the Serious Eats site. I love everything about it: the concept is amazing! But this chowder recipe really jumped out at me. Especially the chart... totally going to try it.

Ann said...

Okay, I had to feature your adorable chowder chart and post in my weekly items of interest. (

If you have any objections, let me know and I'll pull the image out of the post (stupid me, I should have asked you beforehand).

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