Saturday, 9 February 2013

Clam Chowder

You will be happy as a clam after you taste this meal!

Clam chowder is one of my favourite meals. If I were to be a bit more honest, clams are one of my top favourite flavours period. They are very versatile and easy to cook with. Considering the small amount of meat you get from a clam, they are densely packed full of flavour and wonderful nutrients. 

A chowder can be a very easy dish to prepare, you can mix it up and add your own flavour or method to the process. No matter how you make yours, always remember there is no wrong way to do it. There are many roads that lead to a good hearty chowder, the important part is recognising which road to take based on your available ingredients.


Today's recipe contains the following ingredients : 4 potatoes peeled and diced into 1 cm cubes; 1 can baby clams; 500 ml home made Vermouth clam juice; fried bacon, degreased and chopped; 1 onion finely chopped; 1 celery stick finely chopped; 4+ tbsp flour for thickening; 1/2 tsp finely crushed herbs; 1/2 tsp Old Bay seasoning; 4+ tbsp butter and cream. 

All my measurements are approximate, I rarely measure exact ingredients because potency of herbs can vary as well as thickness or fluidity of ingredients can change from season to season. Use your nose, ears and eyes and of course your taste buds when cooking, its an art not a science :) 

Clams are a very good food to include in your regular diet. They contain only only two grams of fat and a little more than 100 calories per 85 grams. In addition to being high in protein they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, iron, vitamin B12 and vitamin C. 

If you are wary of eating seafood because of toxicity concerns, most clams are fortunately relatively safe to eat thanks to their low amounts of contaminants. To be on the safe side, refrain from eating raw clams and always cook them thoroughly without overcooking to make sure they are safe.

As with any dish, the ingredients you select will determine the quality of the outcome. I have several methods to attain eye rolling chowder goodness, let me now explain my methods and madness.

Ideally, I would start my chowder off with a couple pounds of fresh in the shell baby Quahogs. These are the same clams used in many pasta dishes. Keep refrigerated with a hole in the bag for air until ready for use. Scrub with a brush under cold water before use to remove any possible grime left on the shell. When the potatoes in your chowder base are almost cooked, throw these in on top and cover the lid for 4 minutes or until the shells have opened. You may remove the clams from the shells while preparing for service or leave them in and let everyone work for their food.

That would be in an ideal world, but seriously how often do we cook with ideal conditions? The fish market is closed or too far to get to in time, maybe there is no fish market at all! Fear not, there are other ways to make the perfect chowder!

Arctic Surf Clams are hands down the best canned clam to do anything with. Their texture, sweetness and robust flavour will make the most feeble attempt at a clam dish turn out delightful. You can leave them whole or chop them down to size, they hold their form well and don't fall apart. These are excellent for stuffing endives, topping canap├ęs, sushi or whatever else you may dream of. The juice in the can is very good and can be used to liquefy and flavour your dish.

The unfortunate thing is that surf clams tend to be pricey, a 142 g (5 oz) can is around 7$. What makes them irresistible for cooking is that you open the can and throw the ingredients into your chowder. You are guaranteed flavour goodness without much fuss. 

Please understand that for myself, canned baby clams alone is not an option for a chowder. I do use them in a hybrid type of recipe that I will show you but I never ever use these without backup support. 

One reason why I never use these alone in a recipe is because I don't use the juice from the can. Usually the juice has a canny taste to it so I drain the baby clams and rinse them in water thoroughly then I Ieave them to set in a bit of salty water while I do the rest of my prep work.

When making your chowder with canned clams, a lot of flavour can be added with one or two bottles of clam juice that can be bought just about everywhere now. As its in a bottle there isn't any canny tin taste to it. This juice costs 3$ - 4$ for a 300ml bottle, so a flavourful chowder could get pricey quickly. 

I have a more "economical" way to get an even richer and more robust clam juice base for my chowders, I make my own! Doesn't that sound fancy? Its not. Basically what I do is I pick up a kilo of fresh steamer clams, it usually costs me 10$. Brush them thoroughly under running cold water to remove all sand and grime.

Place them in a pot, add 3 oz Vermouth turn burner on high and cover. When it starts to boil, set a timer for 4 or 5 minutes. When clams are cooked, remove from heat and let cool a bit. Once cooled, remove clam from shell and dip in a melted butter and balsamic vinegar mixture and eat. Keep eating until all clams are gone and you have a wonderful juice at the bottom of your pot. Pour juice into a freezer container and place immediately in freezer. Keep frozen until needed. It is important to freeze the juice immediately, if the juice is not frozen, I will drink it.

First of all, before you say anything more, I had to eat the steamer clams, they do not work in a chowder. Their bodies are more liquid than other clams and they break up with sometimes unfortunate slimy textures added to your soup. No one wants to see clumps of slime in their chowder, so I had to take one for the team and eat them.

If you are wondering how I get "economical" out of this method, it can be easily explained. For 10$ I had a wonderful feed of steamer clams AND I got 500 ml of concentrated clam juice that is more potent than 4 or 5 of the store bought bottles of clam juice which would cost 15$ or more. Correct me if I am wrong but that is real economics at work! LOL

Before you add your clam juice, hold the bowl up to the light to check for grime or sand. Those dark little dots you see are sand. You could strain it or just pour slowly into the pot and leave the sandy residue in the bowl. The rest of the sludgy material is fine to use, it is merely coagulated material from the clam and it will melt away once added to the hot pot.

Seasoning is a very personal thing and it turns out different almost every time. This time I took dried thyme and rosemary from my garden. Mill it to break it down to a powder if possible so it blends into the mix. Pick out the large pieces so they don't float around on the surface of the chowder.

Bacon is a good ingredient to more than just chowders! Its fatty saltiness mixes well with with the sweet clams. I only buy my bacon at the butcher. The pre-packaged bacon at the store is a complete rip off. Test it yourself, take 1 strip of butcher bacon, fry it up. In the end you have a well fried piece of smoked meat and liquid fat in the bottom of the pan. When you weigh it, you might loose 15% of your weight. However when you do the same test with a packaged brand from the supermarket the weight loss can be 50% or more from water evaporation!

When using bacon, you have two choices. Chop it up and fry it into bacon bits and degrease it before using or you can chop it and add it raw with your butter to the pot as the first 2 ingredients. The first method cuts the fattiness of your dish whereas the latter adds some bacony fullness to the dish.

I don't have many recipes that don't start with a generous amount of butter! To make our thickening roux, we need at least 3 tablespoons of butter and flour. Melt the butter gently then add onion, celery, crushed seasoning and Old Bay mix.

Cover and let simmer gently until onions are transparent but not browned. Then add flour and stir constantly, working the mixture around the pot until the flour starts to turn a golden colour.

Gently pour in the clam juice and stir well to break up the cooked flour. Add the potatoes and a bit of water if necessary to bring the water level above the potatoes.

If it still looks too liquefy, don't worry, once the water warms up, the thickening action will take place. Notice above how the surface is smooth and the potatoes have sunk to the bottom whereas below the ingredients are more suspended in the broth and the surface is less smooth.

Let this whole mixture simmer very slowly until the potatoes are well cooked, 30-45 minutes. Add about 1/4 cup of cream, stir and let sit for another few minutes.

Generally, we don't crave chowder during our warmer seasons, so it goes without saying that the best accompaniment to any chowder is a batch of home made rolls! Turn on that oven, get the house warmed up and fill it with the yummy smell of fresh bread!

Serve up your chowder with hot rolls, butter and some freshly milled pepper. Don't savour your chowder too long because you won't get back in time for any of whats left in the bottom of the pot!

That folks is how I enjoy a good bowl of chowder! Bon appetit!

Final note : Unfortunately, chowder is not the greatest thing to eat after freezing. While the flavours remain intact, the potatoes have a ricey texture to them. Not ideal, but its better than wasting the uneaten chowder if you know if won't get eaten the next day.

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