Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Secrets to the Best Clam Chowder – December 28, 2008

*Again, this post is uber late. I hope to finish the posts for 2008 by the end of 2009. Baby steps, lol.

** By the time I finished making the chowder, we were both starving and wolfed down our bowls. The only "final result" pictures were taken when I was putting the leftovers away.

I have discovered some secrets to making the most addictive New England-style clam chowder. Of course, I’m going to make you read the entire post to figure them out.

As a kid, New England-style clam chowder from a can was my favourite soup of all time. Yes, it even beats crab and fish maw soup. It was one of the most comforting smells of my childhood. We stopped buying that particular brand of soup (don’t know what it was called, but we bought it in three-packs from Price Club), and I had to eat Chunky New England Clam Chowder. Disappointing.

Years later, my mum decided she would make it from scratch. She used to make it when she worked at a deli *slash* pastry shop all the time. While I watched her pull a few ingredients together to make a glorious pot of happiness, I realized it wasn't difficult to make from scratch at all.

The ingredient list is long because I make up recipes as I cook. I’ve been experimenting with my chowder for the past year and a half, and so far, this rendition has given me the best results. Of course, I don’t use exact measurements when I cook (unless I’m making pastry or cookies), so all of this is pretty much made-up anyways. Feel free to omit or substitute ingredients to your taste/convenience.

From start to finish, the chowder takes almost an hour and a half to make. This is no quick dinner fix, y’all.

Warning: this recipe makes almost 8 cups of chowder!!! You’ll need two large pots to make it all work. If you want to see if the recipe suits your taste, I suggest you halve the recipe. Proceed with caution.

4 cups potatoes chopped into ½ inch cubes, preferably red potatoes
Enough water to cover the potatoes, plus a half-inch
1 tbsp powdered chicken stock (yes, the
neon yellow one with bright green flecks)
3 slices bacon, minced
2 tsp butter
1 large onion, diced
2 tsp minced herbs (I’ve used different herbs each time, and somehow, the chowder turns out tasting the same every time. It’s a mystery.)
1 tbsp all-purpose flour
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
¾ cup half-and-half cream (10%)
1 cup milk (if you use skim milk, increase the half-and-half to 1 cup. This is definitely not a low-fat recipe.)
1 bottle of clam juice
1 can of clams
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Start boiling 2 cups of water with the powdered chicken stock, while peeling and chopping the potatoes.

A note about the potatoes: I prefer red potatoes for the texture. When raw, they are firm and waxy, making it easy to peel and chop. After they are cooked, they become creamy without losing their shape. Also, they don’t melt when you boil them for a long time. I like that they stay chunky and keep their bite (toothful?) in the chowder, even after freezing and reheating.

2. Add the potatoes to the water, and fill the pot with enough water to cover the potatoes, plus half an inch.

3. If you’ve prepped everything and everything is in place (mise en place), take some time to chill. The potatoes will take at least 15 minutes to cook, so sit back and have a coffee. If you’re like me and you prep while you cook, start mincing the bacon and dicing the onion.

4. Check on the potatoes after 15 minutes. You want to make sure that a fork will easily pierce through a chunk of potato. When it’s ready, drain and reserve the water.

5. Find the pot you want the chowder to end up in, and heat it up to medium-high with the butter and bacon, stirring occasionally.

6. When the bacon begins to brown and turn crispy, crank the heat to high and toss in the onions with the herbs and a pinch of salt. The idea is to brown some of the onions for some flavour.

I mentioned earlier that it really doesn’t matter which minced herbs you use, or if it’s fresh, frozen, or dried. I swear, it really doesn’t. Use the herbs that smell comforting to you. This time, I used rosemary, oregano, thyme, basil, and parsley. The last time, I used rosemary, oregano, and sage. The differences in taste were subtle at the end, since the focus is on the flavour of the clams.

7. Add the flour after the onions soften. Stir vigorously, and turn the heat down to medium.

8. When the mixture starts to turn golden (but before it turns brown), add the cream slowly. Be careful, the mixture will bubble, hiss, and splash. Stir continuously while pouring the cream.

9. Add the milk, nutmeg, clam juice, and half of the strained potatoes. Add a pinch of salt and pepper. Stir well.

10. While the cream mixture is heating up, mash the rest of the potatoes with some of the reserved potato water until it resembles a loose batter. An easy substitution would be to mix leftover mashed potatoes with some potato water until it reaches the loose batter consistency. This is to help thicken the chowder without resorting to reducing ungodly amounts of cream.

11. Once the cream mixture is bubbling, add the mashed potato mixture. Stir well, since the mashed potato will sink to the bottom and burn, if you’re not careful.

12. Turn the heat down to medium-low while the chowder starts to reduce and thicken. It should simmer for at least 20 minutes.

13. Check the consistency of the chowder. If it is too thin, reduce further. If it is too thick, add more of the reserved potato water.

14. Check the taste of the chowder. If you’ve been doing it properly, you should have seasoned the chowder almost every time you added a new ingredient.

15. Just before serving, add the clams and turn off the heat. The clams should never be boiled because it will make them tough and chewy.

16. Do a final taste test and make adjustments accordingly. Make sure you stir well and cover the pot for 10 minutes.

17. Ladle into bowls and serve with crackers or warm bread.

You can do a lot of tweaking with the recipe and adjust the chowder to how you like it. I like a sinfully rich chowder with large chunks of potatoes. The mashed potatoes are the perfect way to cut more cream out of the chowder without sacrificing its luxurious mouthfeel.

Since this makes a giant pot of clam chowder, you can refrigerate or freeze the leftovers. I always freeze a large container or two for those lazy lunch days. You can gently reheat it on the stove (remember not to boil the chowder, unless you want chewy clams) or microwave. If you use a microwave, stop it every 30 seconds and stir thoroughly until it is heated through. I find that the chowder is a lot thicker after reheating, so keep some milk on hand to get it back to your desired consistency.

And I really don’t know what the deal is about the herbs. Seriously, I have tried at least four different combinations of herbs, and the end result has always tasted like clam chowder. You will notice small differences in the aroma of the chowder, but it’s almost like an afterthought.

My secrets to making a successful pot of clam chowder come down to a handful of things: patience, low heat, mashed potatoes, and adjusting while you cook. Not really so secret if you think about it.

Happy chowder-ing!

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