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Chowder: Call Me Hungry

March 05, 1992|MARIE SIMMONS | Simmons is author of the recently published "Rice, the Amazing Grain" (Henry Holt) .

A pair of hungry whalers in search of a warming supper and sound sleep--Ishmael and Queequeg, narrator and harpooner in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick"--find their way to an ominous old Nantucket inn called the Try Pots. They are greeted brusquely with the question, "Clam or cod?" and left to wait for what they fear has been promised--a single clam to be shared between the two.

"However," Ishmael later recalls, "a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes! The whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt."

The two seamen, perhaps in unconscious anticipation of the cold, stormy times ahead, gleefully proceeded to consume not one but two bowls of hot soup each--one of clam and one of cod--and call for the same at breakfast.

While we draw the line at breakfast, my family and I can devour a bowl or two of chowder for a most satisfying supper. In fact, our chowder pot gets plenty of use throughout the year. I love chowders because they require the simplest, freshest ingredients, they are quick and easy to prepare and they cook in a matter of minutes--a bonus for any busy cook.

Even with today's seesawing prices, fish chowder can be the most economical of dinners and one of the few ways one can successfully use less expensive frozen fin fish without sacrificing flavor or texture.

Chowder making is a remarkably simple business, requiring as few or as many ingredients as one desires. New Englanders used to refer to "building a chowder," a process of alternating layers of salt pork, onions, thinly sliced potatoes and fish that are allowed to cook slowly.

I reinterpret the method slightly by using a standard technique to "build" all my chowders, starting with the fat, traditionally salt pork, although I use everything from bacon to olive oil. Next I add chopped onions or other aromatic vegetables such as garlic or shallots. Then comes the liquid, which can be water, milk, cream or tomatoes infused with the juices from the chosen shell or fin fish.

For many people, milky chowders are synonymous with New England. Like the Try Pots chowder, however, "most of the chowder recipes in New England cookbooks of the mid-19th Century did not include milk," writes Linda Wolfe in "The Literary Gourmet: Menus From Masterpieces." The original choice was simply water, the only nonalcoholic liquid available in the ship's hold.

My first encounter with a milk-less and tomato-less chowder came at a New England inn where I worked summers. The chef's specialty was a memorable pot of onion, celery, potatoes and chopped clams swimming in a fragrant broth. Called Rhode Island clam chowder, it forms the inspiration for the Potato-Clam Chowder recipe below.

I am of the school that likes fish cooked but not overcooked, even when I am simmering it in my chowder pot. Scrubbed shellfish or thick pieces of fish should be gently poached so that their juices will slowly infuse the chowder liquids with their fresh, briny flavor. If allowed to boil and bubble vigorously, shellfish will become tough and fish will disintegrate. Five to 15 minutes at a gentle simmer in a large, broad pot with a tight-fitting lid will render seafood juicy, sweet and perfectly cooked.

With access to a good seafood market, I look to the "catch of the day" before deciding what will go into the chowder on any particular night. Traditional recipes called for cod, scrod or haddock, but many other firm-fleshed species can be called into play, among them halibut, bass, tilefish, flounder, salmon, snapper and hake. Freshwater fish that can substitute acceptably include walleyed pike and perch.

When it comes to shellfish, clams, of course, are a favorite. Unfortunately, due to the inconsistencies in the safety of our waters, this shellfish is not as plentiful as when Ishmael and Queequeg dined at the Try Pots. I usually select the farm-raised clams. The most familiar of the farm-raised varieties are known as Manila clams and are raised in the Northwest.

The truth is that in today's market, we must dig deep into our pockets when buying fresh clams, but thrifty landlocked cooks can substitute canned clams--which are usually chopped quahogs--and bottled clam broth.

On the other hand, mussels--especially the grit-free, farm-raised variety--are always a good and often a reasonably priced choice. Often I balance the budget by buying a combination of clams and mussels and then throwing in one jumbo shrimp per serving. My chowders vary with the types of seafood available, the season and my mood.

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