By Domenica Marchetti
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Chowder is a home cook's dream.
Almost certainly born of necessity (early versions contained little more than salt pork, onions, fish and hardtack, a dry biscuit consumed by fishermen at sea), the dish invites improvisation, improvement and creative touches. From the main ingredient -- will it be clam, cod, crab or corn? -- to the supporting players -- red potatoes or yellow? milk or cream? tomatoes or no? -- chowder is about personal expression.
But what makes a good chowder? Experts on the subject consider it neither soup nor stew. "Chowder is 'a dish' unique unto itself," Jasper White writes in his book "50 Chowders."
Some say the name stems from the French word "chaudiere," or cauldron, a reference to the vessel the dish was first cooked in. But White points out that the word "jowter," meaning fishmonger, was being used in coastal regions of England as early as the 16th century. He speculates that chowder is just one of those dishes that "occurred simultaneously in many parts of the world," a notion that makes some sense given its regional quality.
The classics, of course, are well known and loved: New England clam chowder, Chesapeake Bay crab chowder, ham-and-corn chowder, to name a few. Manhattan clam chowder, which made its appearance in the 1800s, has its fans, but some believe that the inclusion of tomatoes keeps it from being a true chowder. In the Pacific Northwest, salmon naturally is the fish of choice, though chowder featuring razor clams is also popular. In Key West, conch is the star.
I would have guessed, based on nothing more than my own observations and personal preferences, that milk or cream, potatoes and some form of pork were practically obligatory components of chowder. And yet, according to White, it wasn't until nearly a century after the oldest-known printed recipe for fish chowder appeared in 1751 in the Boston Evening Post that potatoes, milk, cream and butter begin to turn up as regular chowder ingredients.
And although pork, in the form of salt pork, apparently was there from the start, I have to say that I have eaten some memorable pork-free chowders.
As far as I have been able to determine, what distinguishes chowder from soup or stew is the way the ingredients relate to each other in the finished dish. In the latter two, the ingredients eventually give up their individuality, contributing to and taking on a unified flavor. With chowder, the ingredients work together to achieve harmony while retaining their essential character.
At least, that's the goal I strive for when I make chowder.
Many of us think of chowder as strictly a seafood dish. However, the wonderfully accommodating nature of chowder allows the cook free rein in this respect. Ham-and-corn chowder is a classic landlubber's version, and White's book contains a bona fide recipe for Nantucket Veal Chowder, which puts chowdermaking techniques to use with one of the island's farm provisions. In cookbook author Deborah Madison's Winter Vegetable Chowder recipe, the vegetables are the stars.
In general, chowder begins with sauteing some chopped aromatic vegetables -- onion, garlic and bell pepper, for example -- in fat. Often, but not always, the fat is bacon fat, rendered by cooking chopped bacon in the pot before adding the vegetables. Once the aromatics have softened, additional vegetables and herbs are stirred in, along with liquid: broth or milk or a combination.
One detail I always take extra care with when preparing chowder is the cutting of the vegetables, which should be fairly large and uniform in size. The chunky quality of the vegetables -- usually potatoes, onions and celery -- is part of what gives chowder its sturdy appeal.
A flavorful broth or liquid is a key component. In many chowder recipes, particularly seafood chowders, the central ingredient is not added until the end (to prevent overcooking), so it falls to the broth to infuse the chowder with flavor. For example, crab chowder ideally should be made with crab stock (and then finished with cream), and clam chowder with clam broth.
But not all of us have the time or inclination to make a homemade stock. Many supermarket fish departments sell frozen fish stock, which is a decent substitute, and a splash or two of bottled clam juice won't hurt, either. Kitchen Basics makes good-quality seafood and clam stocks, as well as clam stock, which are available in some markets. Canned broth works just fine with some chowders, as in the Roasted Corn Chowder With Ham and Chicken Sausage (see http://www.washingtonpost.com/recipes), which uses canned nonfat, low-sodium chicken broth.
Contrary to the version plied by so many mediocre waterfront restaurants, chowder does not need to be thick. Sometimes all you need to do is smash a few chunks of potato against the side of the pot to thicken the broth. Otherwise, for a smooth consistency, a judicious amount of flour sprinkled in will do the trick, as will a splash (or two or three) of cream. Tomato-based chowders, such as the San Francisco Crab "Meatball" Chowder (see http://www.washingtonpost.com/recipes), use no cream at all, thereby managing to provide nourishment and virtue in the same bowl.
Whether you plan to make chowder a first course or the main course, it is always nice to serve something with it. I am not opposed to oyster crackers, and I particularly like the plump round ones that look a little like cream puffs but are crumbly and salty when you bite into them. But there are lots of other choices.
Hearty breads such as sourdough and pumpernickel are good foils for creamy chowders. Cornbread and buttermilk biscuits go with just about any chowder I can think of. And for tomato-based chowders, you can't go wrong with garlic bread or bruschetta. Sometimes I will even serve a spicy, not-too-sweet gingerbread alongside a creamy bowl of chowder. That chowder plays so well with others is just one more indication of its inviting nature.