One surprise when we started thinking about this blog was discovering how many, many special days are dedicated to food on the American calendar. Whether grilled cheese or oysters is your jam, rest assured there’s a “National Day” devoted to your favorite treat. Did you miss National Margarita Day? Make a calendar note for next year.
We could fill an entire blog with these newfangled food “holidays,” but most of them smack more of marketing than any actual traditions. One we can’t resist, though, is National Clam Chowder Day, because chowder is one of those foods people are truly passionate about. We have a friend who once drove from New York to Boston just for a cup of her favorite chowder. While it’s often thought of as a tourist dish, chowder is serious business, especially in New England, which hosts countless chowder contests with chefs competing for bragging rights. Even in our own families, everyone has a favorite style of chowder, whether it’s a light broth, heavy on the clams, or a thicker, creamier broth with plenty of potatoes.
It is believed that the New England style of chowder originated in France and became a common dish stateside in the 1700s. Clam chowder became so popular that even Herman Melville sang its praises in Moby Dick:
“…a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favorite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition.”
Since then, many different varieties have come on the scene. Creamy New England chowder is the most iconic, followed by the tomato-based Manhattan style, considered a heresy by many New Englanders. In 1939, Maine even introduced a bill in its legislature making it illegal to add tomatoes to chowder! (The bill did not pass.) Other lesser-known regional varieties include Minorcan chowder from Florida, which sets itself apart with the unusual addition of datil pepper, a spice indigenous to Cuba. And there’s also Rhode Island clam chowder, known for its clear broth and use of giant clams that weigh up to 3 pounds.
This is the time of year when a steaming bowl of hearty soup, accompanied by great, crusty bread and a salad–whether lightly dressed greens or a more filling concoction–makes the perfect dinner. For years, Zanthe’s children resisted the whole concept of soup, which seemed both bizarre and somewhat tragic. But she’s been working on them assiduously, reeling them in slowly with chicken noodle and Italian wedding soup, and at long last she has them right where she wants them: excited and interested in soup! Like pasta, soup can also be a great vehicle for introducing less familiar flavors to younger eaters, and clam chowder is a perfect example. Many kids who are otherwise rather suspicious of seafood will happily guzzle down chowder: the creamy, bacon-studded, potato-thickened soup is a great foil for the bracing salinity of the clams. With hot garlic bread, corn bread or even just a bag of good oyster crackers on the side, it’s one of the Great American Meals.
Creamy Clam Chowder with Corn and Bacon
2 dozen medium-size cherrystone or little neck clams, rinsed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
¼ pound slab bacon or salt pork, diced
2 leeks, light green and white parts only, halved and cleaned, then sliced into half moons
3 large Yukon Gold potatoes, cut in ¾ inch dice
½ cup dry white wine
3 sprigs thyme, tied with kitchen twine
1 bay leaf
2 cups cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper (preferably white) to taste
¼ cup chopped parsley
1 cup corn kernels, fresh or thawed if frozen
Put the clams in a large, heavy saucepan, add about four cups of water and set over medium-high heat. Cover and cook until clams have opened, ten to fifteen minutes (throw away any clams that fail to open). Strain clam broth through a sieve lined with cheesecloth or doubled-up paper towels, and set aside. Remove clams from shells, and set aside as well.
Rinse out the pot and return it to the stove. Add butter, turn heat to medium-low and cook bacon or salt pork, stirring occasionally, until the fat has rendered and the pork has started to brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove pork from fat, and set aside.
Add the leeks to the bacon fat and butter, and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until they are soft but not brown, about 10 minutes. Stir in potatoes, corn kernals and wine, and continue cooking until wine has evaporated and the potatoes have just started to soften, approximately 5 minutes. Add enough clam broth to just cover the potatoes, approximately 3 cups, reserving the rest for another use. Add the thyme and the bay leaf.
Partly cover the pot, and simmer gently until potatoes are tender, approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, chop the clams into pieces about the size of the bacon dice.
When potatoes are tender, add cream and stir in chopped clams and reserved bacon. Add salt and pepper to taste. Let come to a simmer, and remove from heat. (Do not let chowder come to a full boil.) Fish out the thyme and the bay leaf, and discard.
The chowder should be allowed to sit for a while to cure. Reheat it to a bare simmer before serving, then garnish with chopped parsley.
Adapted from “The Best Clam Chowder,” The New York Times