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Cheap and Good: Chowder

shrimp-chowder So, you’ve gone to the grocery store with your $10 bill and you’ve bought some staples. You put them on the shelf and it looks good. You feel solid.

Let’s take a look at chowder, that theoretically quintessential American soup.

Actually…it’s not. Chowder comes from the French word chaudiere. This is the name of a big pot that is basically used for things like stews, because if you look at the word, it contains another French word, chaud, which means hot.

If you look at the map of New England, you will notice that it snuggles up against historically French areas of Canada: the Maritimes and Quebec. The Maritimes are great fishing areas still. And, if you look in any phone book, from Castile, Maine to parts of northern Vermont you will see hundreds and hundreds of people with names like Thibodaux, Dubois, Michault et al. — the border between the US and Canada in those areas is remarkably porous and people for hundreds of years passed back and forth, or were forced out of places like Nova Scotia and moved and brought their customs, dishes and big iron pots with them. And stews and soups made out of fish and shellfish have been around for a very long time.

So what makes chowder chowder rather than just a cream-based soup?

Every New England chowder (whether it’s clam, fish, corn or whatever) starts the same exact way. It is the ultimate “clean out the fridge” sort of dish with lots of chunked up potatoes. You will want to make sure you’ve got the following things already chopped up and cooked:
A couple of big potatoes, peeled, cubed up and boiled until fork tender
Cooked (or canned) clams and/or steamed firm white fish

In general, here is the way to make clam or fish chowder:

Chop up salt pork or a couple of slices of thick bacon and fry it up, pulling out the very very tasty fat.

Fry up about a cup of chopped onions in that rendered fat.

Season with some thyme, parsley, pepper

Pour in a couple of cans of low salt chicken (or vegetable based) stock

Pour in 1-2 bottles of clam juice

Add milk or cream (1/2c to 1 c)

Thicken it up with bread crumbs or broken up crackers

Heat up until it’s steaming and then put in the clams/fish fillets which have been chunked up and let that come to temperature (a pound of fish will make a whole lot of this)

Garnish with pepper and serve.

Don’t boil it back up once you put in the fish or clams – it makes the seafood rubbery. If you happen to have some left over mashed potatoes in the fridge, you can throw those in to thicken it up as well. Basically, you’ve got a chunky thick cream-based stew.

The major difference between New England and Manhattan clam chowder is not just the use of a tomato base; there are also chopped up celery, carrots, and onions in it and no clam juice. So this is a completely different breed of cat entirely. New England clam chowder is really a creature of the fisherman and the farmer bringing together foods that were readily available right there: milk from cows, basic vegetables, pork and fish or clams.

Money saving tip: Well, on the clam side, you can use canned clams. On the fish side, that is a lot trickier. Any firm white fish will do: cod, halibut – I’ve even seen recipes that call for grouper. Frozen fish is less expensive than fresh. Tillapia can be pretty reasonable also. You can substitute mild tasting canned fish like white albacore in water for fresh or frozen fish. You can also use frozen shrimp (just make sure to clean them and cook them first if you are not buying them precooked).

Now for the Op-Ed part: I think corn chowder is a total and complete nutritional waste of time. I find it boring, bland and useless. To get any nutritional good out of it, you have to pair it with a sandwich that contains its own protein. At that point, you may as well just eat the sandwich with a glass of milk and be done with it.

If I have offended the Corn Chowder Lobby, I am sorry and I will further offend with the following suggestion: if you have to make corn chowder, take a can of any white bean (great northerns, navy, cannellini, etc.), rinse them, heat them up in a bit of olive oil, mash them up with some of the liquid part of the soup until they have the consistency of refried beans and keep adding soup liquid until they are sloppy and put that back into the soup pot. 1) They are white, 2) they will thicken up the soup and 3) they have a lot of fiber and good quality protein in them and will, in combination with the corn, give you a complete protein.

There, I’ve done my culinary duty.

And finally, here is today’s recipe. I had to clean out the fridge because the DH brought home all the uneaten shrimp from an office party and as we all know, that stuff will not keep. The photograph above is the result of that effort – Shrimp Chowder. It’s got a lot of zip from the various sorts of veggies and spices; it’s interesting looking and even the DH, who is NOT a chowder eater, liked it.

• 2-3 potatoes as big as your fist, peeled and cubed
• 2 cans reduced sodium chicken broth
• 3 stalks of celery, chopped – get rid of the bottom couple of inches
• 1 fist-sized onion, chopped
• 1/2 cup chopped sweet pepper – I used some multi-colored bells I had in the fridge
• 2 T. olive oil
• 2 T. unsalted butter, divided into two pieces
• 1 1/2 cups milk – I used 1% because that’s what we’ve got
• 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
• 1/2 cup fat-free evaporated milk
• 25 pre-cooked medium shrimp, (for uncooked, I’d go with at least a pound, peeled and deveined and cooked)
• 1/2 teaspoon paprika
• 1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
• 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
• 1/8 teaspoon pepper

–In a big saucepan or dutch oven, put a couple of table spoons of olive oil and 1 T. of unsalted butter and heat up. Don’t let it burn.

–Put in the chopped up onions, peppers, and celery, cover, put on low and cook, occasionally stirring for 10-15 min. Don’t let it burn.

— In a different saucepan, put the chicken broth and the potatoes and boil that up. Once the potatoes are fork tender, turn the heat off and take out half the potatoes and set aside. Add the milk to the pot with the broth and potatoes and turn off the heat.

— Once the veggies are really soft, take a potato masher and mush up half of the veggies and add the set aside potatoes and mash those up too. So, in the pot on one side, you’ll have mashed up potatoes and mashed veggies. On the other side of the pot, you’ll have cooked but unmashed veggies. Take off the heat for the moment.

— In a small saucepan, put the other tablespoon of unsalted butter and melt. Add the flour and the spices and make a roux: which means that basically you stir around the spices and flour into the melted butter and let it cook a little bit over a low heat. You will start to smell the cooking flour and spices, which is what you want – never put “raw” flour into a soup or sauce. Blech.

— Take the condensed milk and add it a little bit at a time, stirring it into the roux; keep adding it a little bit at a time until it is all done. You should have a really thick sauce; if it is not “saucy” enough (not enough liquid), start adding the broth/milk from the other pan until it is. Once it is thinned down enough (it’s still going to be thick – think cheese sauce consistency), scrape that out into the pot with the potatoes and broth/milk and put that back on the heat – medium.

Add back the veggies and mashed veggies/mashed potatoes to this and heat this until it starts to bubble. It will thicken up a LOT. Turn down the heat and add the shrimp to heat through. Don’t bring this to a boil; it will make the shrimp rubbery.

Serve with bread, a salad, and you’re good to go.

And, speaking about bread – next time, we’re going to discuss “fear of being too kneady.”

(originally published at Oxdown Gazette)

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