Clam Chowder Without Winter?

February 20, 2012

I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.
~Andrew Wyeth

Waiting for a frigid, stark white night to savor some chowder seems futile this winter. The weather has bordered on the absurd here. In the lower 48, temperatures have been freakishly warm particularly from the plains to the east coast, confusing flora and fauna and upending snow resort life. This week was no different with another balmy February stretch and no end in sight to the warmer than usual temps. Cold refused to settle in this year, and a measly percentage of the land has been blanketed in snow. Even rainfall has been lacking.

Besides drought, there are downsides to this t-shirt and shorts weather. Our friendly mosquitoes, flies, fleas and ticks may emerge earlier and if the temps remain moderate, and they are given a longer times to reproduce, pest populations could be noticeably larger this summer. Yet another danger looms as plants, tree and shrubs start to grow sooner in response to warmer temperatures and longer periods of sunlight. If fooled by these warmer periods they may begin to bud, shedding their winter coats. Should freezing temperatures arrive, it can prove fatal to some.

Some of this aberrant winter weather has been caused by the Arctic Oscillation, a pressure system that drives where the jet stream divides warm and cold air masses across the country. This year, cold northern air was fenced off at higher latitudes than usual which helps explain our warmth and why Alaska has been enduring such a raw, arctic winter. Others have also credited the mild conditions to the La Niña climate pattern, a system in which low pressure systems pull warm air north from the equator.

Chowder is a generic name for seafood or vegetable stews and thickened soups, often finished with milk or cream although others prefer briny or tomato based. Debate rages on whose is better. The English word “chowder” was coined in the mid 18th century, apparently from the cooking pot called a chaudière (12th century term from fishing villages along the Atlantic coast of France), traced from the Late Latin caldaria (a place for warming things). The word and technique were introduced in Newfoundland by Breton fishermen and cooks, then later spread to New England. Others claim that the word derived from the old English word jowter (fish monger).

CLAM CHOWDER

8 ozs thick sliced bacon, cut into 1/2 ” lardons
Extra virgin olive oil

2 T unsalted butter
2 C leeks, white and green parts, clean and coarsely chopped
2 C yellow onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/3 C celery, finely chopped
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, lightly smashed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 T unsalted butter
1/4 C all purpose flour
3 C whole milk
3 C heavy whipping cream
2 bay leaves

2 lbs russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2″ cubes
Tied cheesecloth with thyme, oregano, and parsley
Sea salt
Water

4 C clams, chopped, strained with juice reserved
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Chives, chopped

Drizzle a slight amount of olive oil in a large heavy stockpot or Dutch oven. Add the bacon first to a cool pan, then heat to medium, and let render for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon from the pan and strew on a paper towel covered plate to drain. Pour off all but about 2 tablespoons of bacon fat.

Return pan to stove and add 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add the leeks, onions, celery and garlic to the pan and stir to coat with the bacon fat and butter. Season with salt and pepper, and cook slowly over medium until the vegetables are translucent and tender, about 15 minutes. Remove and discard garlics. Add 3 more tablespoons of butter and when melted, stir in the flour to coat the vegetables and cook for about 3-4 minutes. Whisk in the milk and cream, add bay leaves, season some with salt and pepper, and bring to a low simmer. Slowly stir in some reserved clam juice to taste.

Meanwhile, put the potatoes, cheesecloth with herbs, and salt in a pot or large saucepan, add cold water to cover, bring to a lively simmer, and cook until the potatoes are just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and spread potatoes on a pan to cool and discard the bag with herbs.

Remove and discard bay leaves from the chowder. Again season with salt and pepper to your liking. Gently add the potatoes, reserved lardons and then the clams, and simmer about 5 minutes to blend flavors, stirring frequently.

Ladle into shallow soup bowls and garnish with chives.

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