Capt. Mike’s New England clam or cod chowder

From Left: The author and bakemaster, his mom Eloise Martel, and brother Andy Martel take a break from serving chowder for family and friends at a clambake in their Bristol, R.I., backyard.

Midwinter 2010

Capt. Mike Martel
For Points East

The temperature has been below the freezing mark for days now, and it occurred to me that the time is very right to share with the readers of Points East a couple of chowder recipes that will warm the cockles of stomachs, if not hearts.

Fish Chowder: If you can buy a whole codfish or haddock, do so, and after you fillet it, simmer the head and backbone(s) – tossing away the skin – in just enough water to cover with a couple of halved garlic cloves and some cracked black peppercorns.

Poach or simmer on low for about 30 minutes after bringing to a boil. Then strain the bones and head out, and poach the fillets next, by themselves, for 20 minutes, maybe add a stick of celery and a halved carrot. When done, set the fish aside to cool, strain the broth clear of the vegetables and anything else in there. This will make a flavorful stock.

If you cannot get a whole fish, just poach the fillets and the stock vegetables together. Strain out the fish and discard the stock vegetables, including the garlic and the peppercorns if you can.

Next, add diced potatoes. I like them small, diced in half-inch cubes or even smaller. Peel if you like, or leave the jackets on. For a finer “chowdy,” use a French-fry cutter, and when the fries are pressed through the cutter, take a knife and cut crosswise. This makes tiny little cubes, and lots of them, quite quickly.

If you started with two quarts of water, you will probably use five or six medium-sized potatoes. The stock in the pan should cover the potatoes with a little to spare. Don’t add more water. Instead, add less potatoes if the stock does not cover them. Cook the potatoes until just tender; do not overcook.

Clam Chowder: Start with two quarts of shucked clams and juice. Put in a pot and slowly simmer to near the boiling point. Juice will turn milky and the quahog edges will curl. Do not boil. Remove from heat and set aside. Strain clams out and set aside in a bowl. Add potatoes (as above) to the clam juice and perhaps a little water to cover the potatoes. Cook potatoes in the clam juice and water broth until just tender, or al dente.

Both: Whilst the potatoes are cooking, dice up a half piece of salt pork or fatback very small and put over gentle heat in a new pot (this will be the pot that you make the finished chowder in). You want to render the pork, not burn it. Turn down the heat if it starts to smoke. You want to generate small, crispy brown salt-pork cracklings. For a more robust flavor, add some nice smoked bacon (diced) to the pot and render together.

While the salt pork is rendering, chop up two medium onions (or one very large one) – yellow Spanish or cooking onions. Chop small. When the rendering is done, scoop out the cracklings and bacon and set aside in a little dish. Now add the onions to the pot and, over heat, sauté the onions in the rendered drippings until the outer edges of the onion pieces are clear. Do not overcook. Add some ground black pepper.

Next, add the cooked potatoes and broth to the sautéed onions. If clam chowder, you may want to add a half-teaspoon of creamed garlic. A very small amount of garlic in a pot of chowder will enhance flavor without adding a garlic taste. You don’t want to be able to taste the garlic.

Now add a quart of half and half and turn up the heat. You do not want to bring it to a boil, just to the point where it is steamy and you can tell that it is quite warm.

Add the fish, broken up small, or the clams, and if the clams are whole, pulse the mixture in a food processor a few times to break them up into smaller pieces.

Now is the time to see if it looks right. Add more half and half if it seems too thick, maybe another pint. Do not add too much so that you make it watery.

Stir. Add parsley if you like. Add ground black pepper, and now taste-test for salt. The clam chowder may not need added salt, but a fish chowder will. I use coarse-grained sea salt.

The last thing you put in are the bacon and salt pork cracklings. Stir. Taste test again.

If you like a thick chowder Aidan’s Pub (Bristol, R.I.)-style, you stir about three to four tablespoons of flour into a cup of half and half, mix well, and then pour into the chowder and stir while the chowder is just below the boiling point, after everything else has been added. This will thicken it.

Now that you are done, turn off the heat, cover the pot, and put it in the refrigerator overnight to cool. Do not eat it.

Re-heat on the following day and serve with biscuits or clamcakes or fish cakes.

Enjoy.

Capt. Mike Martel grew up on Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, and has swallowed enough of it to truly be part of his environment. Although he has been on the water, in one form or craft or another, since childhood, he is currently, like Slocum, “cast up from the old sea, so to speak” while he refurbishes his antique wooden gaff yawl Privateer and ekes out a living writing and seeking jobs delivering derelicts from one forlorn harbor to another. He lives in Bristol, R.I., with his wife Denise and son Tom. His other two older children, now grown, have moved southward to warmer climes, and – perhaps understandably – inland.