Tuesday, May 8, 2012

My second favorite soup

I don’t know, but there’s something about spring that makes me want soup. So lately, there’s been soup on the menu a lot around here. It may go back to summer visits to my aunt’s cottage in Three Lakes, Wisconsin, where my grandfather felt that dinner (meaning the midday meal) wasn’t dinner without a first course of soup. Being Czech, those soups often had dumplings, something my aunt was a dab hand at. Regardless, the soups were always delicious.

Soup is a lovely thing and most recipes reheat very well and that makes them good for quick and simple meals. We always have great stock on hand, so preparing them is generally a snap. Just fetch what we need from the basement freezer, throw in a few ingredients and put it on the stove to simmer. Make enough, and you can have several meals with little effort.

On to my second favorite soup: New England Clam Chowder. It’s something that’s not hard to find on many restaurant menus, but really good NECC, unfortunately, is hard to find. Two things stand out in the poor versions: too few clams and too much flour. I can see why restaurants scrimp on the clams. They’re expensive while potatoes, onions, celery, milk, etc. are not, but heavy in flour by the scoop? Why would anyone do that? After an hour or so kept at serving temperature, it’s better suited to being used as lumpy wallpaper paste.

Up till recently, the best chowder I’d had was at Legal Seafood in Boston. It was a bit light on clams, but it had great flavor and a nice texture: not too thick and not too thin.

A few years back, I decided I really needed to add this delicious soup to my culinary arsenal, so I hit the books, so to speak, and also the Internet. Over the course of half a year, we had a fair bit of experimentation as I tried various ingredients and refinements. Eventually, I came up with one that really is exceptional. The basic recipe is courtesy of the CIA. No, not the spies of the US government, but The Culinary Institute of America near Hyde Park, NY. Every single person I’ve served it to has said it’s the best they’ve ever had.

I don’t remember the original now, but there’s not much changed here because the recipe was so good right out of the gate. The addition of Worchestershire sauce and sherry are what makes this version an absolute stand-out. You’ll notice that the ingredient amounts are pretty specific. Don’t be tempted to use a half-cup of flour, for instance, rather than the seven tablespoons called for. The recipe is rigid because it works perfectly with these amounts. The only thing you might be inclined to fudge on is the heavy cream. We’ve gotten by using table cream if we’re being virtuous, but the best version is to keep all ingredients as given. Since we only make this once or twice a year, the extra butterfat isn’t all that dangerous.

A sidebar: Vicki really prefers Manhattan clam chowder, partially because she prefers thinner soup to thicker, but also because she feels tomatoes and clams are such a good combination. She went off on her own culinary journey of chowder enlightenment, and someday I’ll prevail upon her to tell you all about the results. I do have to say that her recipe for Manhattan, more idiosyncratic and original, is a fine one. I still prefer the New England version, but I’ll eat hers anytime.

One bit of history: Manhattan clam chowder was apparently given its name by New Englanders as a subtle put-down for what they felt was an inferior version by the folks in the big city.

New England Clam Chowder
Makes 8 servings

Note: Buy chopped ocean clams from your fish monger for this, not those baby clams you find in the supermarket. We use Capt. Fred brand in a large, 51-ounce can packaged for restaurants. If your fish monger doesn’t carry something like this, it can certainly be ordered in. This size can has a lot more clams and clam juice than you need to make this recipe. I have a companion Stuffed Clam Oreganata recipe that I’ll share with you all at a later date.

1¼ lbs 
canned clams, minced, juices reserved (3¼ cups of meat if you don’t have a kitchen scale)
3 cups clam juice
3 slices double-smoked bacon
1½ cups onion, ¼" dice
7 Tbs all-purpose flour
1 bay leaf
¾ tsp fresh thyme, minced
1¾ cups redskin potatoes, ¼" dice
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
¼ tsp salt
freshly-ground pepper
6 Tbs medium dry sherry
½ tsp Tabasco sauce
1 tsp Worchestershire sauce

1. Chop the bacon relatively finely. Drain the clam juice from the clams and add enough bottled clam juice to make up 3 cups – if needed. If the potato skins are clean, we don’t bother peeling them.

2. Cook the bacon slowly in a soup pot over low heat so the fat renders thoroughly and the bacon becomes slightly crisp, about 6 minutes. Stir occasionally.

3. Add the onion and cook until it’s translucent, about another 6-7 minutes. Now, add the flour and cook over very low heat for another 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. You don’t want it to brown!

4. Whisk the clam juice into the onion/bacon mixture, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the thyme, bay leaf and potatoes and simmer until tender, between 10 and 12 minutes. Stir the pot frequently to keep the mixture from scorching.

5. At the same time, heat the clams, cream and milk in a saucepan until it reaches a simmer. You DO NOT want this to boil.

6. When the potatoes are just done, add the clams and cream to the soup base, stir and simmer another two minutes. Stir in the salt, pepper, sherry, Tabasco and Worchestershire sauce and your soup is ready. It will be even better if you let it “age” for a couple of hours and then reheat it carefully before serving it in heated bowls.

You really must offer oyster crackers with this. In fact, we’ve heard that it’s illegal in parts of New England not to do it! The best ones I’ve found are made by Westminster Crackers of Rutland, Vermont. They may be hard to find but you can order them. Visit their website.


Eleanor said...

Oh, lovely!

I really miss clam chowder. Have you ever tried thickening with anything except flour? I can only have potato starch or corn starch these days.

Rick Blechta said...

Jayne, if you can’t use flour, potato starch should work. Corn starch really won’t, especially if the soup is going to be reheated. I would, however, wait until you add the milk/cream/clam mixture to add the potato starch. You won’t be using it to make a roux where the recipe calls for the flour to be added. Just ignore that step. Don’t forget to make a slurry of the potato starch with, say, some milk. I’m not completely sure what the thickening power of the starch would be in this recipe, so I’d add it carefully to see what happens.

Great question. Thanks!

S. C. Gates said...

I have been taking a class Tuesdays for 3 years. We start off by breaking bread and having a bowl of soup. As we take turns providing the meal,I am delighted to have a delicious new recipe to offer. Thanks, Rick.

Eleanor said...

Thanks, Rick. I'll give that a try. Potato starch thickening tends to separate a bit overnight but should merely requires stirring up again the next day.

Rick Blechta said...

I don't have all that much experience using potato starch, and the few times I have used it, the meal never made it to the leftover stage. One trick I can pass on from my experience in a restaurant kitchen is to thicken only what you’re going to use at that meal and then thicken the rest as you’re going to use it. When you want a sauce or soup to be just the correct thickness, this is the way you do it. And this is the perfect spot for potato starch since you don’t have to worry about that raw flour taste.

Please let me know how using potato starch works out for you! And thanks for the comments!

Rick Blechta said...

Susan, glad to provide the recipe. Hope it’s a smashing success for you. One memory that didn’t occur to me when I wrote this piece is the time I had a pretty decent clam chowder (again, too few clams!) on the pier at Monterey years ago when I was there for Bouchercon. They served the soup in one of those bread bowls and it was a crispy crusty pumpernickel delight. With a glass (or two) of a California white, I was ready for the afternoon’s panel!