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About the Author
Jennifer Trainer Thompson is the author of 18 books, including Fresh Fish, The Fresh Egg Cookbook, and Hot Sauce! Nominated for three James Beard Awards, she has been featured in Martha Stewart Living and Coastal Living magazines, and she has written for Yankee, Travel & Leisure, the Boston Globe, and the New York Times, among other publications. Thompson is the chef/creator of Jump Up and Kiss Me, an all-natural line of spicy foods. She splits her time between the Berkshires and Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts.
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Soups and Chowders
WHAT A GREAT WORD: CHOWDER. "Chowdah," my mother always said, flipping it off the roof of her mouth with gusto. A hodgepodge of flavors and textures, chowder was probably invented on the coasts of northwestern France and southwestern England in the 16th century, a make-do meal for fishermen that combined the day's catch with what was in the garden or on shipboard. The word's origin is thought perhaps to be chaudière, French for large iron pot, but another possible root is jowter, Cornish for fishmonger. When ships returned home from months at sea, the town's welcome celebration included a communal chaudière, into which each fisherman contributed part of his haul.
Fishing as far out as the Grand Banks, early explorers probably took their catch ashore in Newfoundland, and a stew was a smart way to cook shellfish and fish with shipboard provisions. Early European settlers found that Native Americans were already making chowders with shellfish. Indeed, in some areas clams and oysters were eaten in such prodigious quantity that you can still find oyster shell mounds piled 10 feet high — there's one in my neighborhood in Mattapoisett, hundreds of years old, from when the Wampanoags summered there. The Pilgrims, who turned their noses up at shellfish, fed clams and mussels to their hogs, calling shellfish "the meanest of God's blessings."
The first printed chowder recipe in Massachusetts was in the Boston Evening Post in 1751 (seasoned with salt, pepper, marjoram, savory, thyme, and parsley), and chowder remains a New England staple. Interestingly, the 1896 Boston Cooking School Cook Bookhad only one recipe for clam chowder, and it was prepared with the traditional cream base. Later editions included Manhattan Chowder (water-based, with tomatoes) and Rhode Island Clam Chowder (clear broth, with bacon).
When my parents married in 1952, they spent their honeymoon camping on the beach in Provincetown, where they kept a pot of chowder continually on the fire, replenishing it with each day's catch. Though quahogs (large hard-shell clams) are the traditional chowder clam because they are large and tough (quahogs are never served raw), any type of clam and most kinds of fish can be used in a chowder, which improves with age. For those who haven't cooked much with fish, a one-pot dish is a great introduction. Rustic and flexible, chowders shine with flavor. They are also profoundly simple, liberating the cook for other pleasures.
New England chowders are traditionally made with quahogs — large hardshell clams that are native to the eastern shores of North America and particularly plentiful near Cape Cod and the Islands. Littleneck clams, which are smaller hardshell clams, would also be tasty in this dish.
* 48 hard-shell (littleneck) clams, scrubbed (for 2
• 4–5 slices bacon, chopped
• 6 tablespoons butter
• 2 celery stalks, chopped
• 1 medium yellow onion, diced
• ½ teaspoon dried thyme or 1 teaspoon fresh
• ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
• 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• 3 large potatoes, diced
• 2 cups heavy cream
• 2 cups milk
• Butter, for serving
• Freshly ground black pepper
1. Bring 6 cups water to a boil in a soup pot and add the clams. Return to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and steam until the clams open, about 7 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the clams to a bowl. Discard any clams that did not open. Strain the clam broth through a paper towel–lined colander, reserving 4 cups of the broth. Shell the clams and mince the meat.
2. In the soup pot, fry the bacon until crispy, about 8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a paper towel–lined plate and discard the fat in the pot. Melt the butter in the soup pot. Add the celery, onion, thyme, and cayenne, and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the flour and cook 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the reserved broth from the cooked clams and stir until thickened slightly, about 5 minutes. Add the potatoes and cream, reduce the heat to low, and cook until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.
3. Add the milk, bring the chowder to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium and add the reserved clams and bacon. Simmer until the clams are heated through, about 5 minutes. Serve in bowls topped with pats of butter if you wish and a generous grinding of black pepper.
Rhode Island Clam Chowder
Rhode Islanders prefer a clear-broth chowder to the traditional "white" chowder, as they deign to call chowders across the state line. If you've never tried a clear-broth chowder, rush thee to the kitchen: it's awesome. From Galilee to Warwick, Rhode Island Broth Chowder is dished up in schools, at diners, in pubs. Indeed, I learned the secret from a public school line cook who moonlights at an oyster bar in Jamestown: start by rendering fat from salt pork and then make a roux by adding flour to the fat. The flavors are strong and pronounced, and I think that a clam broth is better than chicken soup for a cold. I like it with a lot of black pepper and a few dashes of Tabasco sauce.
* 20 littleneck clams
• 4 slices bacon, chopped
• 2 tablespoons butter
• 1 large yellow onion, diced
• 2 celery stalks, diced
• 2 teaspoons fresh thyme
• ½ teaspoon black pepper
• ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• 1 pound yellow potatoes, diced
1. Bring 6 cups water to a boil in a soup pot and add the clams. Return to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and steam until the clams open, about 7 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the clams to a bowl. Discard any clams that did not open. Strain the clam broth through a paper towel–lined colander, reserving 4 cups of the broth. Shell the clams and dice the meat.
2. Fry the bacon in the soup pot over medium heat until crisp, about 8 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove the bacon, leaving 2 tablespoons fat in the pot. Add the butter, onion, celery, thyme, pepper, garlic powder, and salt, and cook until the onions are translucent, about 7 minutes.
3. Add the flour, stir, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the reserved broth, stir, and then add the potatoes and the reserved bacon and cook until the potatoes are tender. Stir in the reserved clams to warm them, then turn off the heat.
A small state with big flavor, Rhode Island is home to stuffies (stuffed quahogs) and Del's Lemonade, not to mention clam cakes, a masterful street snack. The first colony to declare its independence and the last to ratify the Constitution, Little Rhody insists on calling a milkshake a cabinet, a sub a grinder, and their signature chowder a broth.
A mere 37 miles from east to west, the Ocean State has a 420-mile coastline of deep bays and low barrier beaches, with 33 islands in Narragansett Bay, an estuary that reaches two-thirds of the way up the state. The fact that no Rhode Islander is more than 30 minutes from the water informs their culinary sensibilities, to be sure.
In the early 1600s, about 4,000 Narragansetts and 1,500 Wampanoags lived in the area now called Rhode Island. Seafood was a staple; they caught striped bass with bone hooks and nets and gathered quahogs, oysters, and other shellfish from shallow waters.
In the 1630s, Puritan theologian Roger Williams fled persecution in Massachusetts and founded Providence. More European settlers arrived, and by the early 19th century, English, Irish, and Scottish settlers were arriving in droves, followed later by Portuguese, Italian, and Polish immigrants. They brought their food heritages with them when they came to work in the mills, creating a vibrant and diverse food culture in a small state that many motorists breeze through on their way from New York to the Martha's Vineyard. Meanwhile, the million residents of the Ocean State tuck in and stubbornly maintain their food heritage, tradition, terminology, and predilections in a small area.
JFK New England Fish Chowder
Thank goodness for secretaries. When John F. Kennedy was president, a disabled girl wrote to him asking what he liked to eat. "Please reply to her," Kennedy's secretary wrote in a memo to the president. "She will be extremely happy. Do not mention anything in the letter about her handicap please!" We have this chowder recipe as a result, thanks to the John F. Kennedy library archives in Boston.
* 2 pounds haddock
• 2 ounces salt pork, diced
• 2 onions, sliced
• 4 large potatoes, diced
• 1 cup chopped celery
• 1 bay leaf, crumbled
• 1 teaspoon salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 1 quart milk
• 2 tablespoons butter
1. Put the haddock in a soup pot with 2 cups water and simmer for 15 minutes. Drain, reserving the broth. Check the fish for bones and remove.
2. Sauté the salt pork in the soup pot until crisp. With a slotted spoon, remove the pork and set it aside. Sauté the onions in the pork fat until golden brown. Add the fish, potatoes, celery, bay leaf, salt, and pepper to taste.
3. Pour in the reserved fish broth plus enough boiling water to make 3 cups liquid. Simmer for 30 minutes. Add the milk and butter and simmer for 5 minutes. Serve the chowder sprinkled with the diced pork.
"Stepping to the kitchen door, I uttered the word 'cod' with great emphasis, and resumed my seat. In a few moments the savoury steam came forth again, but with a different flavor, and in good time a fine cod-chowder was placed before us. ... Fishiest of all fishy places was the Try Pots, which well-deserved its name; for the pots there were always boiling chowders. Chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fish-bones coming through your clothes."
— HERMAN MELVILLE, WRITING ABOUT A NANTUCKET CHOWDER HOUSE IN MOBYDICK (1851)
with Crab and Bacon
Old Bay seasoning was created in the Chesapeake Bay area in 1939, when creator Gustav Brunn fled Nazi Germany and settled in the region. Old Bay is used quite a bit in Navy ship galleys (probably due to the strong Naval presence in Maryland), and the seasoning is delicious in all kinds of crab dishes and with other seafood as well. It's named after the Old Bay passenger ship that plied the Chesapeake in the early 1900s. In this chowder, you could substitute lobster or fish for the crab.
* 4 cups fresh corn (about 6 ears)
• 8 slices bacon
• 1 celery stalk, diced
• 1 large yellow onion, chopped
• 1 pound red potatoes, unpeeled and diced
• 5 tablespoons butter
• 5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• 6 cups whole milk
• 3 tablespoons fresh thyme
• 2 teaspoons salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
• ½ teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
• 1 pound fresh crabmeat, flaked or chopped
1. Preheat the broiler.
2. Cut the corn kernels off the cobs and spread the corn in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Broil, shaking the sheet every few minutes, until the kernels are caramel colored, 5 to 7 minutes.
3. Fry the bacon in a pot over medium heat until crispy, about 8 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels; crumble and reserve.
4. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of bacon fat, and sauté the celery and onion over medium heat until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the potatoes, stir to coat, and then add the butter. After the butter has melted, add the flour, and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Slowly add the milk, stirring, and reduce the heat to low. When the chowder starts to thicken, add the corn, thyme, salt, a few grinds of pepper, and the Old Bay. Stir to combine and simmer until the potatoes are cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes.
5. Stir in the crabmeat and cook until heated, 2 minutes or so. Ladle into bowls and top with the reserved bacon crumbles.
The Pilot Cracker Incident
When the cook made chowder aboard a square-rigger, the ingredients were standard ship fare: salt pork, fresh or salt cod, and sea biscuits. (Potatoes were added later.) Sea biscuits (also called hardtack) were the forerunner to Crown Pilot crackers (the ones you find in diners in the noisy cellophane bags), a ubiquitous ingredient in a steaming bowl of New England chowder for decades.
Made by Nabisco, the Crown Pilot was the food giant's oldest recipe, acquired when they bought a Newburyport bakery that had been making the recipe since 1792. When demand for the cracker waned in the 1990s, little did Nabisco's bean counters realize the anger they'd unleash among independent-minded, tradition-bound Yankees when they discontinued the cracker (along with 400 other non-performing foods) in 1996. Maybe they also didn't realize what a compelling story it made: a little cracker, beloved by the underdog, abandoned by a multinational food giant. People thought it was a pretty crummy move on Nabisco's part.
Ground zero was Chebeague Island (population: 350) in Maine's Casco Bay, where folks circulated a "Save Our Pilot Cracker" petition. Angry chowder lovers flooded the Nabisco Customer Comment Hotline. Humorist Tim Sample placed a call to CBS's Sunday Morning, and soon Maine islanders were venting on national TV, singing "My Bonny Lies over the Ocean" before the cameras with the refrain, "Bring back! Bring back! Bring back my Pilot crackers to me, to me!" As one islander explained, Saltines are fine for sardines, but not for chowder.
Nabisco resumed production in 1997, though their interest was half-baked; after the company was acquired by Kraft, the Pilot cracker was grounded in 2008. Fortunately, Westminster oyster crackers are a reasonable substitute.
If your recipe calls for peeling and deveining shrimp before cooking, remove the shells (including the crunchy covering on the shrimp tails) by cracking them with your fingers and pulling them off. Devein the shrimp by running a sharp knife down the back of each shrimp to remove the black streak, and then wash under cold water. Shrimp-cleaning tools that split the shell and remove the vein in one motion are handy if you eat a lot of shrimp.
A bisque is a creamy soup made with shellfish; using the shrimp shells in the cooking process is a classic French technique to extract maximum flavor. Here, bourbon enhances the shrimp without overpowering it, and rice replaces some of the cream traditional in bisque. This bisque is a wonderful start to any meal, as it is not heavy and has a silky mouthfeel.
* 2 pounds (approximately 33–35) large raw shrimp
• 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper
• ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons bourbon
• 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
• ¾ cup chopped celery
• ½ cup chopped fennel
• 1 large onion, chopped
• 1 medium leek (white part only), washed and sliced
• 2 garlic cloves, chopped
• 3 tablespoons tomato paste
• 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• ½ cup white wine
• ½ cup chicken broth, homemade or low-sodium
• 5 cups cold water
• ½ cup basmati rice
• 2 sprigs fresh thyme
• 1 bay leaf
• ½ cup heavy cream
• Salt and white pepper
• ¼ cup finely chopped fresh chives, for garnish
• Bread or toasted garlic crostini, for serving
1. Peel and devein the shrimp (see preparing shrimp), saving all the shells and tails. Reserve 16 whole shrimp and coarsely chop the remaining shrimp.
2. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large soup pot over high heat. Season the chopped shrimp with salt and black pepper, add to the pot, and cook until just opaque. Remove to a bowl and set aside. Add the remaining tablespoon oil and the reserved shrimp shells and tails to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until the shells begin to brown. Take the pot off the heat and pour the ¼ cup bourbon into the pot. Carefully ignite the bourbon with a long kitchen match or stick flame and let it burn until the flame subsides and the alcohol has burned off. Return the pot to the heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid is reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Transfer the shells and liquid to a separate bowl and set aside.
Excerpted from "Fresh Fish"
Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Trainer Thompson.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
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