Week one of my cooking apprenticeship certainly had a ‘surf and turf’ flavour to it. On the morning we made beef olives, we also knocked up another classic from the attic – clam chowder. Well, the chowder base anyway. We needed gallons of the stuff for a seafood festival that weekend. The soup would be finished off on the day and served in hollowed-out crusty rolls for £4 a pop.
Because we were making the base a few days in advance, our tutor told us not to add the bacon and to use powdered fish stock rather than fresh, to help it keep longer. The bacon, clams and cream would be added on the day.
I’ve always been a big fan of chowder and have wanted to travel to America’s blustery Atlantic coast ever since I read Moby Dick, when Ishmael and Queequeg feast at the Try Pots, a rough inn famed for its chowder “plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt”.
As always, I can’t find much agreement about clam chowder’s history among the many food boffins. Some posit it may derive from ‘chaudrée’ – a thick fish soup from France’s Charente-Maritime region. The variant, chowda, is believed to have originated in Newfoundland when fishermen would throw part of the day’s catch into a large pot for supper.
Not that it really matters, of course, because there is even less agreement about how to cook the dish. Indeed in 1939, as war was breaking out in Europe, politicians in Maine were fussing over the far more pressing issue of drafting legislation to make it illegal to add tomatoes to their traditional, cream-thickened chowder.
The type we made on our snappily-titled Level 2 NVQ Diploma in Hospitality (7132) course was definitely of the New England camp – a tasty base of potatoes, onions, peppers, carrots and bacon. Although I’m sure many purists would turn their noses up at carrots and peppers, and insist the only break from the calico broth should be pink cubes of bacon.
|Flour added to the sweated vegetables|
Again, some people use biscuits as a thickening rather than flour. But we used the latter. The lesson came with a short aside about using roux (equal amounts of flour and fat) to thicken sauces. For a ‘white roux’ - for use in white sauces - you fry the flour and fat over a low heat for five minutes, for a ‘blonde roux’ – the base for veloute (velvety) sauces – you cook the flour out for 10 minutes, and for a ‘brown roux’ – for gravies etc. – you could it for 20 minutes.
125ml vegetable oil
125g plain flour
125g diced smoked bacon
2 large onions, cut into brunoise
2 large carrots, cut into brunoise
2 large sticks celery, cut into 1cm dice
2 large yellow peppers, cut into 1cm dice
5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 large potatoes, cut into 1cm dice
2.5 litres fish stock
200ml double cream
2kg carpet clams
In a large saucepan, heat the oil and sweat the onions, potatoes, celery, carrots, bacon, garlic and peppers over a low heat for 10 minutes, stirring regularly. Once soft, but not coloured, add the flour and cook out for five minutes, stirring all the time.
Heat the stock and add a ladleful at a time to the roux, making sure the liquid is fully dissolved until adding the next batch. Simmer for 10 minutes. Season to taste. This can then be cooled and left covered in the fridge for a couple of days until you are ready to use it.
|The finished chowder base|
Wash the clams well and discard any that are open or broken. For my money, the best in the UK are the small carpet clams you get in Portland, Dorset – called palourde in France and almeja in Spain. Put them in a covered pan over a medium heat and cook until they are open – this should take only a minute or two.
Add the cream to the chowder base and the poached clams and serve with plenty of crusty bread. Garnish with finely chopped chives and black pepper. Some people also whisk in 125g of butter to give a good glaze to the bowl, but then some people eat butter the thickness of bread.