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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Sustainable Seafood

January 31, 2009

Sorry, another screed from the bully pulpit…

Fish is a high-protein, low fat food that provides a range of health benefits. In particular, white-flesh fish is lower in fat than any other source of animal protein, and oilier fish contain substantial quantities of omega-3, or the “good” fat in the human diet. A growing body of evidence indicates that omega-3 fatty acids help maintain cardiovascular health by playing a role in the regulation of blood clotting and vessel constriction.

In addition, fish does not contain those “naughty” omega-6 fatty acids lurking in red meat.

Despite their nutritional value, fish can pose considerable health risks when contaminated with substances such as metals—the most commonly discussed being mercury. Once mercury enters a waterway, naturally occurring bacteria absorb it and convert it to a form called methyl mercury. Unfortunately, humans absorb methyl mercury readily and are especially vulnerable to its effects. Because the poison is odorless, colorless and accumulates in the meat of the fish, it is not easy to detect and cannot be avoided by trimming off specific parts. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of manufactured organic chemicals that contain 209 individual chlorinated chemicals, known as congeners. Eating fish contaminated with mercury or PCBs, can adversely affect the brain and nervous system, causing serious health problems, especially for young children and pregnant women.

How do you select a fish?

Rule: Know thy local fishmonger or butcher. There is no excuse for timidity—his job (the one he is paid to do) is to serve you fresh fish, fowl and meat. Probing inquiry about his product is completely de rigeur, if not mandated; and a fishmonger or butcher who does not openly share his intimate knowledge with you is one to avoid. (I knew one.)

(1) “Flat” fish:
The shorter the “boat to plate time” the better; firm, shiny, bright colored flesh; fresh, mild, open ocean-sea breeze scent, not “fishy” or ammoniac; scales intact & even; clear, not cloudy eyes (except for deeper fish, e.g., grouper); bright pink or red gills, not slimy, dry or mucous covered; fillets & steaks should be moist and without discoloration.

(2) Shell fish (crustaceans & mollusks):
“Boat to plate time” again rules; mild, open ocean-sea breeze scent; Lobsters and crabs should be purchased live and as close to the time of cooking as possible. Both should actively move their claws; lobsters should flap their tails tightly against their chests or, when picked up, curl their tails under their shells. Shrimp should have uniform color and feel firm to the touch. Hard-shell clams, mussels, and oysters, purchased live in their shells, should have tightly closed shells or snap tightly closed when tapped. If they do not close when tapped, they are dead and should be discarded. Soft-shell clams are unable to close their shells completely. To determine if they are alive, gently touch the protruding neck of each clam to see if it will retract. If the neck does not retract slightly, discard the clam. Discard any clams, mussels, or oysters that have cracked or broken shells. Freshly shucked clams, sold in their liquor, should be plump, moist, and shiny. Freshly shucked oysters should be surrounded by a clear, slightly milky, white or light gray liquid. Freshly shucked scallops vary in color from creamy white to tan to a light pink color. Squid should have cream-colored skin with pinkish patches.

Rule: Keep in mind how the fish in our precious oceans are preciptiously vanishing…the numbers from studies are staggering. For instance, since 1950, the harvests from about one third of the world’s fisheries have collapsed to less than 10% of their historical highs. Among the culprits are overfishing, habitat damage, climate change, oxygen depletion and bycatch. So, solemnly chose a species which is relatively abundant, and whose fishing/farming methods are friendly to the seas and rivers. The fish should also be one which is commonly free of known toxins or contaminants…that is, not found in troubled waters.

Because of the number of fish involved and the ever changing populations, a well researched, almost indispensable, site which rates current seafood choices is the Monterey Aquarium Seafood Watch . Another equally informative site is Blue Ocean Institute, offering assessments and suggested better alternatives to fish in significant environmental danger. Both sources also offer seafood and sushi pocket guides to assure your restaurant choices include sustainable fish.

Finally, a new book entitled Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving The Oceans One Bite At A Time was released for publication last month which provides a comprehensive guide for conscientious sushi diners.