Often times when I make chowder, I’m standing next to my hot cast iron wood stove (on our Maine windjammer) stirring at least a couple of pots, turning bread baking in the oven and prepping yet another baked good slatted for a future meal. I think of how many pots of chowder have been made on wood stoves just like mine and the people these potages have nourished.
It’s a traditional meal that pulls musings of times past and almost demands the ritual of following in the footsteps of cooks that have gone before.
All sorts of chowder recipes abound in these parts, but most of them, while delicious, are not chowder in the book of old-time Mainers. True chowder is milky, not thick, and is slightly thickened with either day old biscuits or oyster crackers (or saltines), not a roux (a flour and butter mixture). In addition, true chowder contains salt pork, not bacon. Always. If either of these things are not in existence, then, I’ve been told, it’s not true Maine chowder, however yummy.
This recipe begins with the required salt pork, something fairly easy to come by in our local Maine butchers or even in the grocery store. This salted, but not smoked, pig belly is the backbone of flavor for every traditional chowder one might concoct. In addition, once the vegetables have sauteed and become soft, day-old biscuits are added – fairly early in the soup making process so they have ample time to soften and disintegrate, becoming indistinguishable and thickening the soup slightly.
Lastly, because I’m often making my chowder on the Riggin where I could be called away from the stove at any moment to drive the yawl boat, take the wheel, or tend to a guest, I use evaporated milk. Evaporated milk doesn’t separate nearly as easily as straight milk when the heat is on for too long. It’s a safety net for me and does add a bit of body and flavor to the soup as well.
Enjoy this nod to the food traditions of the past. Who knows, maybe one of your ancestors made chowder for their people.
Maine Seafood Chowder
6 ounces salt pork
2 cups diced celery; about 3 stalks
2 cups diced onion; about 1 large onion
6 cups potatoes, peeled if need and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
2 day old biscuits or 6 saltines
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups clam juice
3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 cans evaporated milk
1 pound haddock
1/4 pound 40-60 shrimp, shells removed and sliced in half
1 pound fresh clams, well-cleaned or 2 cups canned clams
Score the salt pork and place it scored side down in a large stock pot over medium-high heat. When the salt pork has rendered for 5 to 10 minutes, add the celery and the onions and sauté for 7 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the potatoes and cook for another 10 minutes. Add the biscuits, salt, pepper, clam juice and broth and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the biscuits have disintegrated and the potatoes are cooked through. Add the evaporated milk and bring to a simmer again. Lastly add the seafood and just cook through, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and let the haddock finish cooking.
Serves 6 to 8
Headed off to make biscuits to go with AND into the chowder!