Monday, December 13, 2004

Pierre Berton's Clam Chowder

"Lunching in the Connaught-Sheraton Hotel in Hamilton one day, my eye was caught by the words 'New England clam chowder' on the menu. As this magnificent dish is a rarity in restaurants, I ordered it instantly, my jaws slavering like those of a half-starved boarhound.

"The waitress arrived presently with a bowl containing a pink and noxious fluid which I identified at once as Manhattan clam chowder, sometimes known as Coney Island clam chowder, an inferior compilation rendered hideous by the addition of tomatoes.

"A giddiness came over me at this imposture and, insensate with rage, I seized an olive spear and sped toward the kitchen to confront the chef.

"'Did you make clam chowder with tomatoes and advertise it as New England clam chowder?' I asked him.

"'I did,' the forger said, and without a second thought I stabbed him through his black heart. There was no blood in him; only tomato juice.

"I surrendered to the gendarmerie at once and was dragged, unrepentant, before the magistrate.

"'Why did you do it?' the kindly jurist asked.

"'Because he made clam chowder with tomatoes,' I answered, in a ringing voice. Naturally, they set me free."

This is Pierre Berton's final recipe in his compilation of columns, Just Add Water and Stir. Mr. Berton passed away a few weeks ago, and of the four recipes he's published this is the one I have enjoyed the most. (Of course I've made his version of corned beef hash more often, and it's quite good, but there's a higher degree of pleasure with this one.)

Before we go on, I'd like to say that I have a very fond memory of Manhattan clam chowder, having eaten the Campbell's condensed version of it fairly often in my childhood. Times have changed, of course, since Mr. Berton's denunciation of Manhattan chowder, and the New England version is far more commonplace nowadays.

Note that this is an adaptation of Mr. Berton's recipe. For his chowder, he starts with "two tins of butter clams." Today, of course, you are more likely to see baby clams on grocery shelves; they'll do just fine. He also uses two pots, a large saucepan and a skillet; being Practial Men with no patience for dishwashing, we'll make do with the one.

New England Clam Chowder

4 slices side bacon (low-salt if available), cut into matchsticks
2-3 medium onions, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and sliced thin
1 stick celery, chopped fine
2 tins baby clams
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup dry white wine
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. celery salt
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 large potatoes, peeled and diced
2-3 cups milk
cayenne pepper
Madras curry powder

1. In a 4-quart pan over medium heat, cook the bacon until some fat has melted out. Add the onions and carrots and cook until soft.

2. Open the tins of clams and pour off the liquid -- but not the clams -- into the pan. Add the chicken broth and white wine. Season with thyme, celery salt, paprika and black pepper.

3. Add the potatoes, bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and let simmer for about an hour.

4. After the hour, add the clams and milk. Season to taste with cayenne and curry powder, raise the heat and cook another 10 minutes.

5. At this point the chowder is ready for serving, but it tastes better if you take it off the heat, let cool, covered, for about half an hour, then put in the refrigerator overnight and re-heat the next day.

For a thicker chowder, add 1/2 cup water mixed with 2 tbsp. cornstarch, at the same time that you add the milk.


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