Sometimes I think we fail to take the time to really enjoy the bounty of the land and sea which is served up at our dinner tables each day; a moment to allow a deep sense of appreciation to whisper to our souls. Perhaps we have allowed ourselves to become jaded by the seductive “plenty” with which we have been blessed by time and place, and the “convenience” with which it comes to us.
One of my favorite essayists (and a distant cousin at that) the late Robert Tristram Coffin, writes of an island picnic in the early 1930s, and of the making of an iron pot of seafood chowder by an extended family, with the whole Atlantic at their feet: “You stir in everything you can find, the spray from the sea, the iodine of kelp, the smell of bayberry bushes scorching in the sun. Even the wind and the blue day get into the chowder sooner or later. It is a wedding of sun and sea.” Whenever Coffin writes about food and family, he does so with so much enthusiasm and gusto you are left nearly breathless with vicarious pleasure. I think some of his genes have come down to me; especially when it comes to chowder.
The essential ingredients of a New England style chowder begin with either salt pork or bacon. I prefer to use a very lean smoked bacon, which is cut into small pieces and slowly brought to a sauté, with the bacon bits (chittlings) set aside to be added back at the finish.
Another “must” ingredient is onions, with the yellow Spanish being preferred. Chopped celery is an option for some, but a “must” for me, including the leaves. The onions and celery constitute the “mirepoix”, going into a tablespoon or two of the bacon fat to sauté to start softening, but not browning. Potatoes have become a “Down East” staple ingredient, cut into chunks and added. Use only a medium starch potato, not an Idaho Russet type which will go mushy; I prefer a small red, or better yet, a Yukon Gold. Finely minced garlic is an option. I recommend two or three bay leaves – a soup-maker’s secret weapon. To complete the chowder base, I favor chicken stock for a farmhouse chowder rather than a beef stock. Of course that will be clam juice in the case of a seafood version.
Whether to use milk, half-and-half or heavy cream for the final touch is up to the chef. I go for heavy cream, because in the end, a cup of that will prevent the necessity of “watering” everything down with two cups of milk to get the desired results. What’s more the cream will not tend to curdle as the milk might.
A grind of pepper, a pat of butter and a sprinkling of bacon crumbs on the top and the steaming bowl is ready to serve.
“Farmhouse” chowder is a term used to identify any of a whole set of “look-alikes” which feature a substitute major ingredient, such as beans, squash, corn, parsnips, chicken or something else. I have recipes for Crabmeat ball, Potato & Cheddar, Pheasant & Cabbage, Mushroom & Leek, and another dozen variations.
The most popular farmhouse chowder across America, and a favorite “comfort food” in itself, is “Corn Chowder”. It is as highly esteemed by The Amish of Pennsylvania as by a resident of Navajo country in the southwest. It is almost as good using canned corn as fresh newly-shucked ears, and so can be enjoyed year-round. For a more intense corn flavor, boil a few of the stripped ears and add the water to the soup base. A handful of chopped bell pepper pieces will give additional color and crunch.
Bread adds a whole complimentary dimension to a steaming bowl of chowder. Hot corn bread, a loaf of French baguette, buttermilk biscuits, or fresh-from-the-oven sourdough bread sticks complete a memorable meal. That, and a minute to say THANKS for the abundance that surrounds us.
A bowl of Farmhouse Corn Chowder from the Cooper kitchen features crisp kernels cut from fresh bi-color Utah ears.