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The Chowder King

Rhode Island Clear Clam Chowder
Corn Chowder

July 26, 2000

No one knows seafood like Jasper White, the stellar Boston chef who in barely twenty years has fathered and grandfathered and uncled many talented young cooks who have enriched the local restaurant scene. A New Jersey farm boy, White landed in the kitchen of the historic Copley Plaza Hotel when he first came to Boston, and was startled at the reverential attitude toward and popularity of the chef's "powerhouse" chowder, with "chunks of haddock the size of your fist."

This led to a long preoccupation with a meal-sized soup, which went hand in hand with a growing mastery of Boston fish and seafood. His recent book Lobster at Home (1998) is both useful and authoritative. And Bostonians are lucky to have nightly access to White's new lobster emporium, Summer Shack -- a huge and lively hall in Cambridge where White has designed and installed special lobster-boiling kettles and also tanks the size of wading pools as opposed to the teeny open aquariums at most seafood restaurants.
Discuss this column in Post & Riposte.

Previously in Corby's Table:

Simply Summer -- June 22, 2000
Corby Kummer satisfies his fresh-herb lust with a new book by Lisa Cowden, Ladle, Leaf, & Loaf.

Tuscany, Reluctantly -- April 26, 2000
Corby Kummer is tired of Tuscany, but he likes Pino Luongo's new cookbook, Simply Tuscan.

Matzoh Makeover -- March 22, 2000
Corby Kummer on Jayne Cohen's The Gefilte Variations, a new cookbook offering multiple versions of Jewish holiday classics.

Ham and Beans to the Rescue -- February 16, 2000
Weary of the Boston winter, Corby Kummer serves up "one of history's great couplings."

How to Cook (and How It Should Look) -- January 20, 2000
Corby Kummer on James Peterson's Essentials of Cooking, a kitchen primer that should fascinate beginners and old pros alike.

Encyclopedia Gastronomica -- December 22, 1999
Corby Kummer makes his way through The Oxford Companion to Food -- and still finds Room for Dessert.

Italian Soul Food -- October 14, 1999
Corby Kummer serves up selections from Lynne Rossetto Kasper's The Italian Country Table.

Countercultural Cooking -- September 15, 1999
Corby Kummer on Chez Panisse -- the influential Berkeley, California, restaurant that started as a countercultural collective -- and the new Chez Panisse Café Cookbook.

Charmed by Chile -- August 18, 1999
A new collection of home-style recipes reflects the Chilean way of life.

Hail to the Chef -- July 15, 1999
A tribute to Patrick Clark, a chef who was a model for many young African-Americans and an inspiration to other chefs.

More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound

Now White has written an equally authoritative book, 50 Chowders: One-Pot Meals -- Clam, Corn & Beyond and it's yet handier than the lobster book, because it contains so much succinct advice about choosing, buying, filleting, and cooking many kinds of fish.

Just for the preliminary chapters alone, which provide a kind of Chowder 101, you should have this book, whatever your interest in bacon and potatoes and, yes, cream. White properly cares deeply about stocks and bases, the soul of any good soup (in fact, both fish soup and chicken soup are a special treat at his new restaurant). White includes recipes for several different kinds of fish stocks, but you'll have to buy the book for those. The recipes I've included below can be made with (canned) chicken broth or clam juice.

It's corn season, and corn is the basis of one of my favorite chowders, with good slab bacon adding heft to the sweet fresh corn and an undertone of cumin and turmeric subtly spicing the vegetables. It's also fresh-clam season, and one of White's simplest seafood soups in the book, Rhode Island Clear Clam Chowder, calls for small quahogs, usually called steamers, or large cherrystone clams, and gives the (often essential) cheater's option of bottled clam juice. It also shows the anatomy of a chowder, as White points out, since there's no milk or cream to mask the diced bacon, chopped herbs, and vegetables. Those herbs include chervil, which looks like carrot-tops and has a delicate flavor somewhere between flat-leaf parsley and licorice. Crushed fennel seeds will add to the licorice overtones, and red pepper flakes will add a Portuguese kick -- the fishermen in Rhode Island (as in the Gloucester suddenly made famous by The Perfect Storm) are mostly Portuguese.

Like most of the recipes in the book, these soups will easily serve as dinner along with salad -- in fact, they make perfect summertime suppers. They also forgive waits. In fact, advance preparation helps any chowder, as White helpfully explains. Chowder can define your summer corn season, and perhaps inspire you to find a source for sometimes hard-to-locate fresh shellfish.

    -- Corby Kummer

Excerpts from 50 Chowders: One Pot Meals -- Clam, Corn & Beyond by Jasper White

Rhode Island Clear Clam Chowder

When you order chowder in a Rhode Island restaurant, you may get a creamy chowder, a red chowder or a clear chowder. Although you would think our smallest state might have a consensus on clam chowder, it doesn't. Even jonnycakes, which are unique to Rhode Island, are made in two versions: thick or thin, depending on the cook. Nevertheless, clear chowder made without milk or tomatoes (like the earliest chowders from the 1700s) can still be found in Rhode Island restaurants, and many old-timers claim that it is the true Rhode Island chowder.

Since my wife, Nancy, is from Rhode Island, we spend a good amount of time down there, and I have sampled the local clear chowder many times. It is always served with a small pitcher of warm milk on the side, but I rarely add it. When I make clear chowder, I strive to make it so good in its own right that no one will add the warm milk, which I do serve in deference to custom. This chowder is like a chowder anatomy lesson. You can see all the parts floating in the broth: clams, bacon, potatoes, onions, celery, and herbs. In my zeal to make the tastiest clear chowder, I add a generous dose of fresh herbs as well as bacon, fennel seeds, and a squeeze of lemon. Certain dyed-in-the-wool Yankees sneer at the idea of lemon in chowder, but I have found lemon in several New England chowder recipes that are far older than they are.

Cook's Note

I have listed crushed red pepper flakes as an optional ingredient. However, unlike Portuguese and other red chowders, which are intended to be spicy, clear chowder isn't. And since this dish appeals to a wide variety of people, including children, I leave the spicing up to the individual cook. The fennel seeds can be crushed with a mortar and pestle if you have one, or place them on a cutting board and crush by rubbing them against the board with the side of your knife, then chop them.

I cook this chowder slowly in order to keep the broth clear, and I don't worry if the potatoes haven't thickened it as much as other chowders; a thinner consistency seems in keeping with the true spirit of this chowder.

The 8 pounds of quahogs in this recipe make 4 cups of clam broth, but you'll need 6 cups of liquid for the chowder. If possible, supplement the quahog broth with fresh or bottled clam broth rather than stock or water.

Serve with toasted common crackers or Pilot crackers. Jonnycakes, although another Rhode Island specialty, don't really go with chowder, but Clam Fritters or Corn Fritters made with jonnycake meal (stone-ground white flint Indian corn) make an authentic and delicious addition.

For equipment, you will need an 8-quart pot with a tight-fitting lid (for steaming open the clams), a fine-mesh strainer, a 4- to 6-quart heavy pot (for the chowder), a wooden spoon, a small pot (to warm the milk), and a ladle.

Makes 12 cups; serves 12 as a first course or 6 to 8 as a main course

8 pounds small quahogs or large cherry-stone clams 2 pounds Yukon Gold, Maine, PEI, or other all-purpose potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
4 ounces slab (unsliced) bacon, rind removed and cut into 1/3-inch dice 2 cups Clam Broth, bottled clam juice, Traditional Fish Stock, Chicken Stock, or water (as a last resort)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter Freshly ground black pepper
2 medium onions (12 to 14 ounces), cut into 1/2-inch dice Salt if necessary
3 stalks celery (6 ounces), cut into 1/3-inch dice 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
6 to 8 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed and chopped (1 tablespoon) 2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 dried bay leaves 2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
1/8 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chervil (optional)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional) 2 to 3 cups whole milk

1. Scrub the clams and rinse clean. Steam them open. Strain the broth; you should have 4 cups (and 1 pound of clams). Dice the clams into 1/2-inch pieces. Cover with plastic wrap and keep refrigerated until ready to use.

2. Heat a 4- to 6-quart heavy pot over low heat and add the bacon. Once it has rendered a few tablespoons of fat, increase the heat to medium and cook until the bacon is a crisp golden brown. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat, leaving the bacon in the pot.

3. Add the butter, onions, celery, thyme, bay leaves, and fennel seeds and sauté, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, for about 10 to 12 minutes, until the onions are softened but not browned.

4. Add the potatoes, the reserved clam broth, and the additional 2 cups broth, and continue to cook over medium heat until the chowder begins to simmer; if it begins to boil, turn down the heat slightly so that it maintains a steady simmer. Cook for about 15 minutes longer, until the potatoes are very tender.

5. Remove the pot from the heat, stir in the diced clams, and season to taste with black pepper and the lemon juice. (It is unlikely that you will need to add any salt; the clams usually provide enough.) If you are not serving the chowder within the hour, let it cool a bit, then refrigerate; cover the chowder after it has completely chilled. Otherwise, let it sit for up to an hour at room temperature, allowing the flavors to meld.

6. When ready to serve, reheat the chowder over low heat; do not let it boil. Stir in the parsley, chives, and chervil. At the same time, heat the milk over low heat; do not let it boil.

7. Ladle the chowder into cups or bowls making sure that the clams, potatoes, onions, and bacon are evenly divided; do not fill the cups or bowls more than three-quarters full. As is customary in Rhode Island, serve the hot milk in a small pitcher so each person can add as much as he or she likes to their chowder, if any.

Variation: Low-Fat Clam Chowder

Although many chowders can be altered to create low-fat versions, this recipe is particularly well suited for that purpose because it is loaded with savory flavorings. The techniques and substitutions used here can serve as a guideline for reducing fat in other chowder recipes. Since this recipe is based on clam broth, you won't need to add more, but to lower the fat in chowder recipes that are finished with cream, substitute an equal amount of broth, stock, or water. A nonstick pan allows you to use the minimal amount of fat to sauté the vegetables. If you have a nonstick pot that is large enough to make this chowder (4 quarts or more), you can make it in one pot. Otherwise, sauté the vegetables in a nonstick frying pan, then transfer them to a pot and proceed with the recipe.

Prepare the clam broth and diced clams in Step 1. Omit the bacon and butter; instead, sauté the vegetables in 1 tablespoon of olive or other vegetable oil; if you do not use a nonstick pan, you may have to increase the oil slightly to prevent the ingredients from sticking. Proceed as directed, omitting the milk to be served on the side.


The flavor of corn combines so naturally and beautifully with other chowder ingredients, it is little wonder that this staple of the American kitchen has found its way into hundreds of chowder recipes. The essence of chowder is making something special out of what is at hand, and for many people, especially those away from the coast, corn fits that criterion. In addition to playing the leading role in Corn Chowder, it performs wonderfully as a supporting ingredient in Lobster and Corn Chowder, Savory Summer Fish Chowder, Chicken Chowder with Corn, and several others.
Canned corn has been around for more than a hundred and fifty years, and its use in corn chowder is probably just as old. I do not use canned corn, but you can substitute canned or frozen niblets by volume in any of the recipes that call for fresh corn. Canned creamed corn has an artificial flavor I dislike, and I do not recommend it. My style of cooking celebrates fresh ingredients, and I don't like to use foods that are not in season. Since chowder doesn't call for or need the most tender delicate types of summer corn (trucked-in cellophane-wrapper supermarket corn works fine), I am content to make good corn chowders from fresh corn for eight or nine months of the year.

Types of Corn

The best types of sweet corn for chowder are the hearty yellow or bicolor varieties. Most of the corn in the market today is one of the sugar-enhanced hybrids. Unlike the old-fashioned varieties that need to be rushed from the field to the pot, these maintain their sweetness for long periods. Because of the extended cooking corn receives in chowder, texture is not a factor. When you stop for chowder corn at the supermarket, you most likely won't have a lot of choice, but the corn will probably be right for chowder. At the farm stand, remember that tender young freshly picked white corn like Silver Queen, which is an ethereal experience when eaten on the cob with butter and salt, will not have the same result cooked in chowder. In either case, look for large ears, preferably of yellow corn; bicolor is the second choice. And it is fine to save a few pennies and buy yesterday's corn. Some of the best varieties of yellow corn are Earlivee, Kandy Kwik, Sugar Buns, and Tuxedo. Among the most flavorful varieties of bicolor corn are Athos, Double Gem, Delectable, and Clockwork.

I have come across early chowder recipes that call for dried corn, but I'm sure these were driven by necessity, not choice. Sweet corn is a vegetable, but dried corn is a starch. Adding it to a chowder would produce something more akin to porridge than chowder.

Cutting Corn from the Cob

To prepare corn for chowder, husk it, then carefully remove the silk. Wiping the ear with a dry towel will remove any recalcitrant silk. Stand the ear with the tapered end up on the cutting board. Using a sharp knife, cut from top to bottom, keeping the knife close to the cob but not cutting into it. Then use the back of the knife to scrape away the remaining moist bits of corn still attached to the cob -- what I call the "milk." The cobs can be broken in half and added to any stock that is intended for a corn chowder; if you are going to do this, don't scrape the cob, just leave the milky bits on to flavor the stock.

Corn Chowder

Corn chowder is king of farmhouse chowders. Hundreds of recipes for it have been published over the years, but since corn and salt pork were staples of the American farm, it is likely that corn chowder was being made and enjoyed long before any recipe was ever printed. The oldest recipe I have come across is by Mary Lincoln, founder of the famous Boston Cooking School, in The Boston Cook Book (1884). Fannie Merritt Farmer, her successor, also published a corn chowder recipe in the original Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896). A crop of corn chowder recipes followed Mary Lincoln's, appearing in cookbooks from Philadelphia to Los Angeles and just about everywhere in between. Some corn chowders were thickened with flour, others with egg yolks. Some, like Fannie Farmer's, used canned corn (which has been around since the mid-1800s), some used fresh corn. The use of milk, cream, or condensed milk also varies from recipe to recipe. The Shakers, members of the well-known utopian community, are renowned today for their austere yet beautiful furniture, but they were also highly regarded for their cooking skills, especially their farmhouse chowders. My version of corn chowder is made similar to the Shaker style, according to a recipe from the Shakers at Hancock Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts (1900), using fresh corn, butter, and cream. Its mellow, sweet flavor and lovely pale golden color is very comforting, and it is a big favorite with children as well as adults.

Cook's Note

Since corn is the heart and soul of this dish, the success of your chowder will rely a great deal on the quality of the corn you use.

If you are making chicken stock or broth especially for this recipe, add the corn cobs (do not scrape them in this case) to that stock for more corn flavor.

Although potatoes help to thicken this chowder, I also use a bit of cornstarch to give it an extra smooth and creamy consistency. Mix the cornstarch and water to create a smooth paste, called a slurry, before you add it to the chowder.

The ground cumin adds an interesting but subtle contrast to the predominant corn flavor of this chowder. In the Southwestern-Style Corn Chowder variation that follows, the amount of cumin is doubled, letting it stand out even more. The small amount of turmeric brightens the chowder's color, making it a little more yellow.

Serve corn chowder as a starter, with toasted common crackers or Pilot crackers. Or serve with Sweet Corn Fritters, Skillet Corn Bread or Corn Sticks, or Anadama Bread on the side to add a delicious contrasting corn flavor to your meal.

For equipment, you will need a 3- to 4-quart heavy pot with a lid, a wooden spoon, and a ladle.

Makes 7 cups. Serves 6

3 medium ears fresh yellow or bicolor corn 1/8 teaspoon turmeric
4 ounces slab (unsliced) bacon, rind removed and cut into 1/3-inch dice 1 pound Yukon Gold, Maine, PEI, or other all-purpose potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter 3 cups Chicken Stock or Chicken Broth
1 medium onion (7 to 8 ounces), cut into 1/2-inch dice Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 large red bell pepper (6 to 8 ounces), cut into 1/2-inch dice 2 teaspoons cornstarch, dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
1 to 2 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed and chopped (1/2 teaspoon) 1 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin 2 tablespoons minced fresh chives or thinly sliced scallions for garnish

1. Husk the corn. Carefully remove most of the silk by hand and then rub the ears with a towel to finish the job. Cut the kernels from the cobs and place in a bowl. You should have about 2 cups. Using the back of your knife, scrape down the cobs and add the milky substance that oozes out to the corn kernels.

2. Heat a 3- to 4-quart heavy bottom pot over low heat and add the diced bacon. Once it has rendered a few tablespoons of fat, increase the heat to medium and cook until the bacon is crisp and golden brown. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat, leaving the bacon in the pot.

3. Add the butter, onion, bell pepper, thyme, cumin, and turmeric and sauté, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, for about 8 minutes, until the onion and pepper are tender but not browned.

4. Add the corn kernels, potatoes, and stock, turn up the heat, cover, and boil vigorously for about 10 minutes. Some of the potatoes will have broken up, but most should retain their shape. Use the back of your spoon to smash a bit of the corn and potatoes against the side of the pot. Reduce the heat to medium and season the chowder with salt and pepper.

5. Stir the cornstarch mixture and slowly pour it into the pot, stirring constantly. As soon as the chowder has come back to a boil and thickened slightly, remove from the heat and stir in the cream. Adjust the seasoning if necessary. If you are not serving the chowder within the hour, let it cool a bit, then refrigerate; cover the chowder after it has completely chilled. Otherwise, let it sit at room temperature for up to an hour, allowing the flavors to meld.

6. When ready to serve, reheat the chowder over low heat; don't let it boil. Ladle into cups or bowls and sprinkle with the chopped chives.
Variations: Corn Chowder with Tomato and Basil

Peel 1/2 pound ripe red tomatoes: Score an X in the bottom of each tomato. Drop into a pot of boiling water for about 30 seconds, until the skins loosen. Cool the tomatoes in ice water, drain, and pull off the skin. Quarter the tomatoes, cut out the juicy centers, and reserve for another use. Cut the tomato flesh into 1/2-inch dice; you should have about 3/4 cup. Add the tomatoes to the chowder right after you add the cornstarch (Step 5). When you remove the chowder from the heat, stir in 2 tablespoons of chopped fresh basil along with the cream.

Southwestern-Style Corn Chowder

Increase the cumin to 1 teaspoon. Right before you add the cornstarch (Step 5), add 1 small poblano chile, roasted, peeled, seeds removed, and cut into small to medium dice. After you add the cream, stir in 2 or more tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro.

Corn Chowder with Sweet Potatoes

To make this delectable sweet chowder, substitute 1 pound sweet potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch dice, for the white potatoes. Sweet potatoes cook a little faster than all-purpose potatoes, so reduce the cooking time to about 8 minutes, then proceed with the recipe as instructed.

"Curing" Chowder

The term curing is used in Cape Cod to describe one of the most consequential (and easiest parts) of chowder making -- allowing chowder to rest while the flavors meld. Do not underestimate the importance of this process. It is during the resting and cooling-off period that chowder undergoes a metamorphosis, emerging with a deeper flavor and richer texture. Once you cook the chowder and remove it from the heat, you have two options: you can let it sit for up to 1 hour at room temperature to cure, or you can refrigerate it (curing it in the refrigerator) for up to 3 days. A 1-hour resting will improve your chowder immensely, and refrigerating overnight or longer is even better! If you decide to refrigerate your chowder, let it cool at room temperature for 30 minutes, then place it in the refrigerator uncovered. Covering can prolong the cooling process, resulting in a warm center that is ideal for bacterial growth. Bacteria ruins the flavor and shortens the shelf life of food. Cover the chowder only after it has chilled completely. I do not recommend freezing chowder, because it destroys the texture of the ingredients, but the stocks and broths in this book, which are often more time-consuming to make than chowder, can be made up to 2 months in advance and kept frozen. Always date the stocks and broths you store in the freezer.

Corby Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The Joy of Coffee.

More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 2000 by Corby Kummer.
Recipes and illustrations from 50 Chowders: One Pot Meals -- Clam, Corn & Beyond by Jasper White. Scribner: New York, New York, 2000. Hardcover, 256 pages. ISBN: 0684850346 $30.00. Copyright © by Jasper White.
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