Chowders Lighten Up
Chowder? In the spring? Why not?
Most of us think of chowders as heavy fare, suitable for hunkering down over — face bathed in steam and fragrance — while a nor'easter rages outside. In fact, that is exactly how American chowder started in the fishing camps of New England.
But there is no real reason chowders should be limited to a particular season. The word, actually, can be applied to any thick, rich soup containing chunks of food. (I also think, despite the claims of some Manhattanites, that chowder is typified by the inclusion of milk or cream, which automatically provides richness.)
Given such a simple definition, chowders can take advantage of whatever the season offers. Potatoes and cheese are good choices in the winter. Hard squashes like acorn and butternut make delightful fall chowders. A couple of years ago, I had an insanely good tomato chowder in August, and fresh corn chowder is hard to beat.
In spring, beets make a delicious, colorful chowder usually called borscht. Spring also offers asparagus, wild mushrooms and new potatoes. And given the season's notorious unpredictability, heartier chowders that warm your bones still may find a welcome place at the table on days when a cold snap catches you by surprise — as it did in some parts of the country last week.
The origin of the word "chowder" is somewhat ambiguous. Most authorities, including the Oxford English Dictionary, assert it originates from the French term faire la chaudiere, which literally means "make the cauldron," and more accurately, "make something in a cauldron." The theory is that Breton fishermen brought the term from France to Nova Scotia.
Others claim the word is from the Old English word jowter, which refers to a fish peddler.
"Think of [chowder's] parentage in terms of place and all confusion falls away," New England food writer John Thorne says in his book Serious Pig. "Chowder is what you eat ... when you can't afford anything else." He has defined the soup's cultural context.
The first chowders were based on seafood: miscellaneous fish, cod, oysters, shrimp, crab, clam and even lobster (once a poor-man's food). Until the 20th century, seafood of all sorts was cheap and plentiful in New England, and chowders were made of whatever was in the day's catch or could be collected on the shores.
Because of the ubiquity of clams — and their ready accessibility to anyone, fisherman or not — New England clam chowder became the archetype. It is a lusciously thick, creamy broth with chunks of clam, potato and onion.
From its beginnings in New England, chowder spread westward across the continent, and was modified and adapted along the way. Potato chowder, corn chowder and potato-corn chowder are the most common variants, but chowders made of mixed vegetables, kale and spinach have also popped up.
Chicken chowder (usually mixed with corn, potatoes or both) also is common. And when chowder reached the West Coast, salmon chowders became popular. One of my favorite chowder variations is cheddar chowder, which is made by cooking bacon, browning onions in the bacon fat with some flour, then heating cream and milk, and melting sharp cheddar into the mix.
Most of the New England clam chowders I've eaten have been either too thin or thickened with a roux, which can give chowder a gravy-like character. I prefer a soup with the consistency of half and half.
An old chowder-head taught me to put oyster crackers in a plastic bag, pound them into fine crumbs with a beer bottle, and use them to thicken the chowder. This works beautifully with clam chowder. In the recipes below, only the Cajun shrimp chowder uses a roux.
Unlike many soups, chowders have few ingredients, so there is no place for subtlety. Chowder should step up to you and look you squarely in the eye with no hesitancy or hidden agenda.
And because there are so few components, they should be the best and freshest you can find. Spring, then, is a perfect time for chowder. You can't hide poor ingredients in these simple bowls of honest fare.
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