Make This Tonight: Clam Chowder

August 21, 2012

two chowders
Photo by Joseph De Leo; styled by Mariya Yufest

From Provençal bouillabaisse to San Franciscan cioppino, Puerto Rican bacalao guisadao to Brazilian moqueca, brothy tomato bases, it would seem, have an uncontentious grip on seafood soups and stews around the world -- everywhere outside of New England, that is. Putting aside Jamaican curried conch and other noteworthy tomato-free exceptions from beyond the U.S. border for the moment, the most formidable opponent to the tomato-based stewed seafood rule is New England clam chowder.

Their earliest forms being water-based fish chowders (bolstered by fatty pork and onions) that were passed down from Nova Scotia between the 17th and 18th centuries, New England chowders have not always called for milk or cream, let alone clams. In fact, the 18th century saw chowder recipes with red wine. Dairy was most likely introduced by way of the crackers that were added to thicken the soup and provide extra calories on the cheap (potatoes later filled this role). The crackers likely weren't made with dairy themselves, but the crackers were often soaked before they were added to the pot. Water had filled this role before (especially when milk wouldn't have been available out at sea); it wasn't long before milk availed itself. No doubt, a thrifty home cook thought it wise to include that soaking liquid in the soup itself. Soon, chowders moved from a slightly milky base to a half-milk, half-water base, at which point dairy secured its place. Today, New England chowders are known for being exceptionally creamy thanks to the common inclusion of half-and-half or cream.

By the mid-19th century, both clams and potatoes had become acceptable chowder ingredients since they were cheap and heaps of them could be harvested locally. However, it wasn't until the late 19th century that clams actually became wildly popular in chowder; up to that point, they were typically seen as a fish substitute (early American settlers had considered them only suitable for pig food!).

As for the addition of tomatoes in clam chowder, Portuguese immigrants in Rhode Island are most often credited with creating the red, brothy version. Tomatoes had grown in popularity and their use had become widespread during the mid-1800s. The Portuguese living along the New England coastline -- already in possession of their own fish stew traditions -- simply adapted the local milk-based clam chowder to their tastes. In 1889, a chef at the very posh Delmonico's Restaurant in New York City published a cookbook that included a tomato-based clam chowder recipe, thereby securing a place for Manhattan clam chowder in the gourmet kitchens of in-the-know home cooks far beyond the big city -- much to the chagrin of their neighbors up north. In 1939, a bill was proposed by a Maine assemblyman to ban tomatoes from chowder. To this day, you'd never know it didn't pass.

We're not taking sides on this dairy-based vs. tomato-based clam chowder tug-of-war, since we happen to think both versions can be delicious (we just wanted to geek out on a bit of history, okay?). See for yourself:

New England Clam Chowder with Old Bay Oyster Crackers by thirschfeld

Makes 8 (6-ounce) servings

For the crackers:

5 cups oyster crackers
1 tablespoon Old Bay Seasoning
A two-finger pinch fine sea salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

For the soup:

2 eight oz. bottles Bar Harbor clam juice
2 six oz. cans Bar Harbor clams, chop them if they are whole, juice drained and reserved
4 ounces bacon, diced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 cups yellow onion, peeled and small dice
1 cup celery, washed, trimmed and small dice
1 tablespoon garlic, peeled and minced
1/8 teaspoon fennel seed, crushed
1 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
2 dried bay leaves
2 tablespoons all purpose flour (optional, depends on if you want thick chowder or not)
2 cups yukon gold potatoes, peeled and 1/2 inch dice
16 ounces 1/2 & 1/2
Kosher salt and fresh ground white pepper
1 tablespoon chives, minced
1 tablespoon flat leaf parsley, minced

See the full recipe at Food52.

Manhattan Clam Chowder by thirschfeld

Makes 8 (6-ounce) servings

2 eight oz. bottles Bar Harbor clam juice
2 six oz. cans Bar Harbor clams, drained, chopped and juice reserved
4 ounces bacon, diced
1 1/2 cup yellow onion, peeled and small dice
1/2 cup leek, white part only, small dice
1 cup celery, rinsed and small dice
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
1/8 heaping teaspoon celery seed
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 cups yukon gold potatoes, peeled and 1/2 inch dice
28 ounces Pomi brand chopped tomatoes
1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon prepared horseradish

See the full recipe at Food52.

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Wine Pairings:

There are many similarities between these classic chowders, but the differences are strong and create totally different sensations to the palate. The only wine that can straddle both is Champagne or some kind of sparkling wine of equal quality. Another option would be an easy-going amber ale. Typically, spicy foods don't go great with carbonation, so you might watch how much heat you add to the Manhattan chowder. On the other hand, the palate-cleansing effect of carbonation is a great match to shelfish-based dishes.

Top Picks

M.V. Deligeroy Cremant de Loire Brut, France
Oskar Blues "Dale's Pale Ale," Colorado

Jake Rosenbarger

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So, are you in the New England or Manhattan camp when it comes to clam chowder? What ingredients must be added to your go-to recipe? Share your cooking tips in the comments section below.

Like this post? See the Make This Tonight topic from last week: BLT Panzanella.

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