I am a weather-based cook. The minute I can see my breath, I’m making those cold-weather comfort foods: Soup. Chili. Meatloaf. Hot cocoa. Clam chowder.
Or rather, chowdah.
This week, our little band of intrepid mushroomers headed back up to the soggy logging trails, looking for late-season treasure. The Northwest’s late fall rain started in earnest last week, signalling the mushroom gods to begin the serious work of decomposing the summer growth for winter.
The tourists have pretty much left with the sunshine; as long as you don’t mind getting just as sodden and chilled as the mossy ferns you tunnel through, the variety of fungi is undisturbed and pretty spectacular. We came upon angel wings, boletes, rassulas, oyster mushrooms, and a whole host of LBMs (little brown mushrooms) that might be edible…or might not.
I carefully photograph the tops, sides, and undersides for later identification. A few of these are probably the big-bucks-per-pound delicacies, but we’re not going to actually EAT one until we have expert confirmation. In the meantime, we pluck gorgeously untouched late chanterelles that will wind up in spaghetti or stir fry..and came home for chowdah.
I fell in love with GOOD chowders when I lived in Boston. New Englanders are famously good at clam chowder, and that’s what I learned to make. Since then, I’ve futzed with the recipe a bit, and come up with a one-pot chowder that’s rich, but not too thick, and massively flavorful.
This recipe makes about a half-gallon of clam chowdah, but you could use it to chowderize just about anything: Corn. Leftover pork roast. Mushrooms (mmmmmm). Scallops.
Clam chowder (chowdah)
- 3 lbs potatoes. You can use russets, Idaho bakers, but Yukon Golds are particularly nice in this recipe. Whatever you use, peel the potatoes, rinse them, and cut them into 1-inch chunks.
- 2 small cans of clams. I like one can of diced and one can of whole clams (so that you have some chew going on), but you could also substitute a pound or so of fresh clam meat if you have it.
- 1 bottle of clam juice.
- 1 quart of half and half.
- 1 pint of whipping cream. Actually, this should be 3 pints of light cream, but light cream is getting difficult to find.
- 1 large onion or two shallots. The onion will lend a stronger flavor; whichever you use, dice them finely.
- 6 strips of bacon. Slice crosswise into half-inch thick pieces. Use more if you really like bacon (who doesn’t)?
- Salt to taste.
- Fresh-ground black pepper to taste.
- 1 teaspoon onion powder.
- 2 tablespoons mushroom powder. I use our home-ground powder made from dried chanterelles, but any mushroom powder will do. If you don’t have it, you could substitute some fresh diced mushrooms or just leave it out.
- 2 bay leaves. I’m lucky; we have a small bay tree in the backyard that supplies our cooking needs.
- 1/2 teaspoon each dill, marjoram, thyme. Again, if you have different ideas about seasoning, mix up your own. This recipe also works well with ground mustard, ground celery seed, etc.
- 1/2 teaspoon MSG. If you’re worried about allergies, leave it out.
- 1/4 cup potato flakes. This is optional; it extends the potato flavor and provides some thickening.
- 1/4 cup cornstarch or flour. This is optional; use only if you like really thick chowdah. The base recipe is on the thinner side of chowders; adding the thickeners gives it a nearly gravy-like consistency.
- Put half the cubed potatoes into a large, heavy-bottom pan (I use the bottom pan of my old 5-quart pressure cooker); cover with water to about an inch above the potatoes. Add 1 tablespoon of salt.
- Boil the potatoes until they’re soft; pour into a colander to drain and cool.
- Put the other half of the potatoes into the pot and again cover with water to one inch above the potatoes, add a little salt. This time, though, cook the potatoes till they’re barely al dente. Pour into a colander, hit with cold water to stop the cooking, and set aside.
- Rinse and dry the pot, then turn up the heat and fry the bacon strips until crispy and most of the fat has been rendered into the pot.
- Add the diced onion and sautee until soft and golden.
- Now add the herbs, MSG, bay leaves, onion and mushroom powders, and plenty of ground black pepper and mix well. They will absorb the excess moisture and grease, so make sure you stir constantly to prevent burning and sticking. (Turn down the heat if you need to).
- Add the first can of clams, along with all the juice in the can. Continue to stir until well-mixed.
- Add the soft potatoes and mash them into the mixture; they should decompose and become one with the clams and stuff.
- Add the second can of clams and the clam juice; when thoroughly incorporated, add the whipping cream, again stirring well.
- Stir until the mixture is homogenous, then add in the half and half.
- Add the potato flakes if you’re going to use them. Stir until they seem to dissolve.
- At this point, taste and reseason if necessary. Check the volume; if you want more soup, this is the time to add some extra milk or half and half.
- Let it simmer, just under boiling (you’ll see lazy bubbles forming around the edges). Do NOT let it come to a full boil.
- After about 15 minutes, check the consistency; if you want thicker chowder, scoop out about a half cup of the broth and slowly add it to the cornstarch or flour, mixing well, then pour it back into the pot.
- Correct the salt and pepper, if needed. Simmer for another 15 minutes or so, then serve.
You can also add sour cream to the chowder for extra richness, but I think it’s a bit much. Nathan seasons his with Tabasco and says it’s delicious; I prefer just leaving it as-is. The clams and bacon are strongly flavored and can take a LOT of black pepper. They’re also naturally salty, so usually I add less salt than I think it needs, letting people salt their own.