I've always enjoyed a good bowl of chowder. My father was born and raised in Rhode Island, so perhaps my fondness stems from that New England connection. But it wasn't until a few years ago that I started to become obsessed.
It began with the story Blue Moose by children's author Daniel Pinkwater. It's a story I used to read to second-graders at my children's elementary school as part of a volunteer reading program. In it, a large blue moose wanders into a restaurant in the woods of Maine one cold winter day. Unable to get rid of the moose (who talks), the chef/proprietor, Mr. Breton, takes him on as headwaiter. In his spare time, the moose slurps cups of hot coffee and bowls of chowder accompanied by gingerbread.
There was something so appealing about Pinkwater's descriptions — the way the moose sat on the floor in the kitchen slurping steaming bowls of chowder, the taciturn customers who never complimented Mr. Breton's cooking but who nevertheless came from miles around on snowshoes to eat his food, the pleasure that Mr. Breton took in knowing his food was appreciated — that I found myself making chowder more often at home. I added two chowder recipes to the cookbook I was working on at the time. I started researching the origins of chowder and wrote an article about it.
That's when I heard from Sean Smith. Smith is a fluvial geomorphologist for the state of Maryland (he studies rivers). He, too, has New England roots, in Massachusetts, and loves chowder. Really loves it. So much so that for the past eight years he has organized a chowder-making competition, which takes place every February at the Severn Sailing Association in Annapolis, Md. Thanks to Smith, I have been in the enviable position of being a judge for the contest for the past two years, and plan to return this February (right, Sean?).
The competition is informal — it's held in the association's clubhouse, a comfortable room with a large hearth and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the harbor — but it is also fierce. Contestants arrive in the early evening, armed with slow cookers brimming with chowder. The pots — there were 17 last year, and Smith expects even more this year — are arranged on several long tables pushed together buffet-style. The judges taste and evaluate; then everyone gets to dig in while a jazz band provides entertainment. Winners are chosen in the "classic" category and "innovative" category. A people's choice winner is also declared.
Last year's winner in the classic and people's choice categories was Darden Pickall, a marina operator from Maryland who made an unforgettable, locally sourced Chesapeake rockfish chowder. By sheer coincidence, Pickall's girlfriend, Charlotte Shearin, who studies marine science, won in the innovative category with a curry-spiked vegetarian succotash chowder.
The question is: What, exactly, makes a winning — or, for that matter, a true — chowder? The dish hovers somewhere between a soup and a stew but is really neither. In his book 50 Chowders, author Jasper White calls chowder "a dish unique unto itself." Its origins are uncertain. It's possible that the word "chowder" comes from the French word chaudiere, or caldron, the vessel in which the dish was cooked. Or, as White also points out, it may derive from the word "jowter," meaning fishmonger, a term that was used in coastal regions of England as early as the 16th century. White speculates that chowder is one of those dishes that "occurred simultaneously in many parts of the world."
Early versions were frugal compositions of pork fat, onions, potatoes, fish, dry biscuits or flour for thickening and herbs, layered in a pot and cooked in water, with a little milk added toward the end of cooking. New York's famous (or perhaps infamous) Manhattan clam chowder, notable because it contains tomatoes, did not make an appearance until the 1800s, and to many chowder purists the tomatoes disqualify it from being chowder at all. Smith is among the detractors. "I side with the Maine legislators who apparently introduced a bill in 1939 outlawing the use of tomatoes in chowder because it is far more of a vegetable soup," he told me.
Yet, not all chowders are seafood- and cream-laden concoctions. Some traditional chowders, such as Rhode Island clear clam chowder, contain no milk or cream, and others, such as Nantucket veal chowder and classic ham and corn chowder, feature meat rather than seafood.
At its most basic, Sean Smith told me, a good chowder must contain salt (usually but not always salt pork) and starch in the form of potatoes or corn. And it needs to have a good stock — at least to produce a winning chowder. The stock should bespeak the ingredients in the chowder. Thus, crab chowder is best made with crab stock, and ham and corn chowder should ideally be made with ham stock. The best chowder, Smith said, is one "that has a taste that makes you remember it, but doesn't have single ingredients that knock you out with a punch."
"Dull chowders in restaurants are often victims of too little reverence for a good stock preparation," he added. "There often seem to be attempts to cover up stock problems with heavy cream, but it just compounds the problem by limiting taste."
Also, Smith noted emphatically, "true chowders have chunks." Those thick, pasty concoctions with bits of seafood here and there, which no doubt many of us have been subjected to at touristy dockside restaurants, do not qualify as chowder and indeed are more like bisque.
Thoughtful stock preparation, as well as unimpeachable ingredients, is no doubt what gave Pickall's rockfish chowder the winning edge at last year's competition. He used the heads and bones of freshly caught rockfish to make the stock for his chowder, and fresh milk and cream from a local dairy. (It also didn't hurt that he had set out a bowl of pork cracklings to garnish his chowder.)
On the other hand, Smith enthusiastically acknowledges the success of the innovators. "The folks who have shown up for the competition have proven that there are a variety of possibilities for ingredients as long as sources of salt and starch are included," he said. Shearin, for example, managed to produce a robustly flavored chowder with no seafood, and using only good-quality milk, thickened with some pureed vegetables and spiked with garlic and herbs.
My chowder recipes would no doubt be considered cheaters' versions by Smith, as I use (gasp!) bottled clam juice in my spicy seafood chowder with sweet fennel, and chicken broth in my smoky ham and corn chowder. But there are times when convenience is called for, and, I might add, with delicious results.
The great thing about chowder is that it is so wonderfully accommodating. Shearin puts edamame in her vegetarian chowder. I put fennel in my seafood chowder. Somehow it works. I dare say you could probably even toss in some tomatoes if you are inclined. But I wouldn't advise it if winning a competition is your goal.
A good, hearty seafood chowder recipe is practically a requirement if you live in the mid-Atlantic. I created this one for a dinner party that we hosted one snowy night. As is my habit, I gave a classic American dish an Italian twist by adding fennel and oregano. It may be less than authentic, but it's still a great chowder. The ingredients list is admittedly long, but the chowder comes together quickly and is easy to make. This recipe is from my book Big Night In: More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes for Feeding Family and Friends, Italian-Style (Chronicle Books, 2008).
4 cups homemade or best-quality commercial chicken broth
8 to 12 ounces bottled clam juice (1 to 1 1/2 cups)
6 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 fresh bay leaf
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano
1 1/2 teaspoons crab seasoning
1/2 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika
1/4 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
Pinch of ground cayenne pepper
Kosher or sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups heavy cream
1 (16-ounce) bag frozen roasted corn kernels (use regular frozen corn if you are unable to find roasted)
1/2 pound grouper, skin and bones removed, cut into 1-inch chunks
1/2 pound large shrimp, peeled, deveined and cut in half crosswise to make bite-size pieces
1 pound lump or jumbo lump crab meat, picked through for shells and cartilage
1/2 cup snipped fresh chives for garnish
Put the bacon in a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot and place it over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring, until the bacon begins to render its fat and turn brown, about 10 minutes. The bacon should be slightly crispy in places but still somewhat soft. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon to a paper towel-lined plate.
Reduce the heat to medium and add the butter to the pot. When it has melted, add the onion, celery and fennel. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent and the vegetables have softened, 7 to 8 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and sprinkle in the flour, stirring well with a wooden spoon until it is fully incorporated and the mixture is pasty.
Gradually pour in the wine, stirring until the mixture is well blended. Add the chicken broth and 1 cup of the clam juice. Stir in the potatoes, bay leaf, parsley, oregano and the seasonings. Return the bacon to the pot. Cover partially with a lid and let the chowder simmer gently over medium-low to low heat until the potatoes are tender, 20 to 30 minutes.
Stir in the cream and return the chowder to a simmer. Add the corn and the grouper and cook for 5 minutes. Add the shrimp and cook 5 minutes more, or until the shrimp have turned pink. Stir in the crab and cook until the chowder is heated through. Ladle the hot chowder into bowls and garnish each serving with a sprinkling of chives. Serve immediately.
Note: The chowder may be prepared up to several hours ahead up through the cooking of the potatoes. Remove from the heat and let sit at room temperature. A few minutes before serving time, reheat the chowder to a simmer and finish the recipe as directed.
I served this chowder as part of a cocktail buffet party on a cold fall night. I was looking for one dish to serve as an anchor of sorts — something that was more than bite-sized, but not a full-blown main course. I ladled the finished chowder into my slow cooker, placed it on the buffet and set it on "warm." Throughout the evening, guests helped themselves to bowls of chowder, which had the double effect of shaking off the late-fall chill and making everyone feel right at home. You will notice, as you read through the ingredient list, that the recipe not only calls for ham but also for bacon and smoked pork chops. As a resident of Virginia for 15 years, I feel obligated to avail myself of the wonderful selection of pork products from my adopted home state. This recipe is from my book Big Night In: More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes for Feeding Family and Friends Italian-Style (Chronicle Books, 2008).
Serves 8 to 10 (or up to 20 small servings as part of a buffet)
4 slices thick smoky bacon cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick strips
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 pound good-quality smoked ham, cut into 1/2-inch dice (see note below)
2 small boneless smoked pork chops, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 large yellow onions, cut into dice (about 4 cups)
2 to 4 minced jalapeno peppers, depending on how spicy you like your chowder
2 red bell peppers, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 green bell peppers, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
5 medium red potatoes (about 2 pounds), cut into 1/2-inch dice (peeling is optional)
2 fresh bay leaves
5 sprigs fresh thyme
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika
1/2 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
1/4 teaspoon chipotle powder (you may substitute cayenne if you do not have chipotle powder)
1/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
8 to 10 cups homemade chicken broth or best-quality commercial chicken broth
1 (16-ounce) bag frozen roasted corn, thawed (use regular frozen corn if you are unable to find roasted)
1 cup heavy cream
Place the bacon in a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot and cook over medium heat until it begins to brown and render its fat, about 10 minutes. Add the butter, ham, and pork chops and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 to 7 minutes, until the meat is lightly browned. Stir in the onions and jalapeno peppers and saute, stirring often, until the onions are softened and translucent, about 8 minutes. Stir in the red and green bell peppers, potatoes, bay leaves and thyme. Saute until the peppers and potatoes are slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Add the salt, sweet and smoked paprika and the chipotle powder and stir to combine. Sprinkle in the flour, constantly stirring to prevent lumps from forming.
Pour in a cup of chicken broth and stir well to combine it with the flour. Gradually add an additional 7 to 9 cups of broth, depending on how thick you like your chowder. Cover the pot partially and simmer the chowder gently over low heat for 25 to 30 minutes, until all of the vegetables are tender. Stir in the corn and cream and cook until heated through. Ladle the chowder into bowls and serve immediately.
Notes: For a three-letter word, ham is a complicated subject. There are dry-cured ham and wet-cured ham and country ham and city ham, baked ham and smoked ham. For this recipe, you want a good-quality basic cooked ham that has been smoked. You should be able to find it in the deli department of your supermarket.
You can make the chowder a day in advance up to adding the corn and cream. Refrigerate the chowder in a tightly lidded container. When you are ready to finish the chowder, bring it to a simmer in a large pot. Add the corn and cream and heat through.
Recipe: Charlotte Shearin's Curried Succotash Chowder
Shearin's creative vegetarian take won first place in the innovative category at the 2010 chowder competition, held last February at Severn Sailing Association, in Annapolis. Her golden-hued creation has all the character of a great chowder even without the seafood.
Fresh rosemary sourdough bread, ripped up into large pieces (optional)
Put the potatoes in a large pot and fill with water to cover by 1 inch. Bring the potatoes to a boil over medium-high heat and boil until just tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Drain them in a colander set in the sink and set aside.
Melt the butter in a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot placed over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, celery, salt and herbs. Saute over medium heat for 10 minutes, until the vegetables are soft and translucent. Stir in the corn and curry powder and cook for 10 more minutes. Add the cooked potatoes and stir gently to combine.
Transfer a small portion of the sauteed vegetables to a bowl and, using an immersion blender, puree until thick and smooth (alternatively, you can use a food processor or a standard blender). Return the puree to the Dutch oven. Stir in lima beans, edamame and milk. Cook until the beans are tender and the chowder is heated through, about 10 minutes. Season to taste with fresh ground black pepper and additional salt, if you like.
Garnish the chowder with a sprinkling of chopped chives and serve with chunks of bread on the side.
Recipe: Darden Pickall's Chesapeake Bay Rockfish Head Chowder
Pickall's chowder is as honest as they come — nothing but fresh fish, homemade stock, potatoes and onions, and best-quality milk and cream. It's no wonder that this rich chowder took first place at the seventh annual chowder competition at Severn Sailing Association. Pickall's recipe takes a little work to execute — it requires making homemade fish stock — but it is well worth the effort.
Heads and bones of 2 large rockfish (save the meat for chowder, remove the gills from the heads and make sure all the blood is washed off from the bones and heads)
3/4 cup dry sherry
2 1/2 quarts (10 cups) boiling water
Melt the butter in large soup pot (8 to 10 quarts) placed over medium heat. Add the carrots, celery, onions, bay leaves, thyme, parsley and peppercorns. Cook and stir until vegetables become soft and somewhat clear, 6 to 8 minutes. Arrange the fish heads and bones on top of vegetables, pour in the sherry and cover with a tight lid. Let the heads and bones "sweat" for about 10 minutes, until they are bright white. Add enough of the already boiling water to cover the heads and bones of the fish. Stir the mixture gently a couple of times and bring to a simmer. Let the mixture simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. If a lot of whitish foam forms on top of the stock, gently scoop it off, trying not to remove any spices. After 10 minutes remove the pot from heat, stir it, cover and let it steep for another 10 minutes.
Strain the stock through a fine mesh strainer placed over a bowl, and discard the bones and vegetables. Season the stock with salt to taste. Use the stock immediately, refrigerate for up to a week or freeze for up to 3 months.
For The Chowder
8 ounces pork fatback, cut into small (1/2-inch) pieces
6 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature, divided
1 large onion, roughly chopped (2 cups)
8 cups rockfish stock (see recipe above)
2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, cut into bite-size pieces
3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 dried bay leaves
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 pint heavy cream
Kosher or sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups whole milk
Fillets and belly meat from the rockfish used to make stock, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 4 pounds total)
In a large (5 1/2 quart) Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot, heat the pork fatback over medium heat until the pieces become hard and toasted and have rendered some of their fat, 10 to 15 minutes. Using a large slotted spoon, transfer the cracklings to a paper towel-lined bowl and set them aside for garnishing the finished chowder.
Add 2 tablespoons of butter to the pork fat and then add the onions. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook the onions until they become soft and clear, about 8 minutes. Pour in 4 cups of the stock and bring to a light simmer. Use an immersion blender to blend together the onions and stock (this helps give the finished chowder a creamy texture). Alternatively, transfer the onions and stock to a standard blender and puree; then return the mixture to the pot.
Add the potatoes, bay leaves, thyme and more stock if needed to fully cover the potatoes. Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook the potatoes until they are just tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the potatoes to a bowl, and set them aside. Remove and discard the sprigs of thyme and the bay leaf.
In a small bowl, blend together the flour and remaining 4 tablespoons of butter to make a roux to thicken the chowder.
Whisk the cream and the roux into the stock, and cook until slightly thickened. If you like, add a small handful of the cooked potatoes to the pot and use an immersion blender to further thicken the stock. Season the stock with salt to taste (it won't hurt if you overseason it slightly because when you add the fish later, the saltiness will be dispersed throughout the fish).
After you have a nice, white, creamy stock, line a clean fine mesh strainer with cheesecloth and pour the stock through it into another bowl. Strain the stock two or three times total to impart a smooth, velvety texture and remove any unwanted lumps. Return the stock to the pot and bring it to a light simmer over medium heat. Add the remaining cooked potatoes and the milk. About 10 minutes before serving, add the fish meat. Gently stir everything together and let the chowder cook until the cubes of fish are cooked through and flake easily when prodded gently with a fork.
Ladle the chowder into bowls and top each serving with a sprinkling of cracklings.