Chowder has long history in U.S. cuisine
Special to the Appeal
With the official end of summer, things have started to quiet down a bit up here in Virginia City – except for the weekends, which have continued to rock with camel races, Ferrari races, the occupying army of bikers (aka Thunder on the Comstock) and any other imaginable excuse for a parade.
And with the passing of summer comes cooler temperatures and heartier fare.
The chowder recipe which follows has been a favorite on our menu since day one. But before we get into it, a little chowder history to dazzle your friends and family.
The name “chowder” most likely came from the French word for cauldron, “chaudiere.” It first appears in the form of a codified recipe in the early 1800s, where it is described as consisting of fresh fish, clams, etc., stewed vegetables and often milk.” Potatoes started to show up around the middle of the century.
The regional riff between New England (white) and Manhattan (red) chowder didn’t heat up until the early 1900s. It is thought that the substantial number of Italian and Portuguese immigrants inhabiting New York had preferred the addition of tomatoes to their chowder. So put off were the New Englanders about the idea of tomatoes in their soup that a bill was introduced into the 1939 Maine Legislature making it a statutory and culinary offense.
Given all of this, doesn’t a chowder have to have some seafood in it? Not so says the Encyclopedia of Food and Drink, which specifically mentions corn as an acceptable primary element.
Our version heads Southwest with the addition of Anaheim chilies, a mild pepper used more for flavor than heat. For the stock, homemade is almost a waste since the chilies, spices and cream will mask its subtle flavor. A good-quality chicken base (if salt isn’t listed first as an ingredient, and it has no MSG) or canned broth will be fine. You can substitute a vegetable stock for the chicken if you are of the vegetarian persuasion.
The soup tends to thicken up a little better if allowed to cool overnight. Add the cream or half-and-half when reheating for service. Top with chopped cilantro, sliced green onion or bacon bits. We serve it with cornbread.
One last tidbit. In his 1851 classic “Moby Dick,” Herman Melville devoted a whole chapter to the preparation of chowder.
8 to 10 good size bowls
4 large ears fresh corn, shucked
3 quarts chicken stock
1 large onion, diced
4 stalks celery, diced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon whole leaf thyme
1/4 tablespoon ground cinnamon
4 ounces butter
6 ounces flour
1 cup diced roasted red bell pepper
4 Anaheim chilis, roasted, skinned, seeded and diced (or two 7 ounce cans Ortega)
1 pound small red potatoes, eight inch sliced
2 cups cream or half and half
Salt to taste
In a two gallon stock pot, bring the chicken stock to boil. Add the corn and cook for 15 minutes. Remove the corn, strain the stock and reserve. Cover the corn loosely with plastic while you proceed.
In the same two gallon pot, melt the butter over medium high heat. Add the onions, celery and garlic. Sauté, stirring frequently until the onions are translucent and tender. Do not brown. Stir in the cumin, thyme and cinnamon and cook for another minute. Add the flour and stir to make a roux. Continue cooking for 3 or 4 minutes, stirring constantly.
Begin adding the stock, two cups at a time, stirring well after each addition. Bring to a boil and then add the potatoes. Simmer for about 10 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked.
Cut the corn from the cob and add it to the pot along with the diced chili’s and red bell pepper. If you are ready to eat, add the cream, return to simmer, taste and adjust salt.
If preparing ahead of time, don’t add the cream. Place the pot in a sink filled with ice water. Stir occasionally until cooled. Refrigerate.
When reheating the chowder for service, bring the soup to a simmer before adding the cream. This will give you the chance to adjust the consistency to your liking.
• Brian Shaw is the chef and owner of Cafe del Rio in Virginia City.