Photo by Judith Hausman
Chowder may have taken its name from the French word la chaudière, the heavy, black kettle that hung on a hook inside a fireplace. The culinary definition is basically potatoes, chunks of potatoes, with various ingredients. (I don’t even peel mine.) Cream is not part of what makes it chowder. Rhode Island clam chowder, for example, doesn’t include cream.
This year, I shared half of a pig with friends, so I have some really exceptional bacon in the freezer to enjoy. It’s so good that I couldn’t bring myself to throw out the bacon fat because it’s delicious in cornbread. You’ll see that bacon is the basis for this cozy, basic chowder and the variations. I didn’t include the Manhattan clam-chowder variant, which is essentially minestrone with clams … oh, and chunks of potato.
Yes, you can make a vegetarian version by starting with a butter-oil combo instead of the bacon. A couple of sliced carrots make the vegetarian version prettier and tastier if you go that route but boy, the bacon is good. You can also substitute onion for the leeks if you must but leeks do add a unique, winey flavor to the chowder. Serve it with good bread or biscuits.
- 4 strips best-quality, local bacon, diced
- 2 large or 4 smaller leeks, diced
- 1 large Red Bliss or Yukon Gold potato, cubed
- 1/2 tseaspoon celery seed
- 1/2 teaspoon thyme leaves, dried
- black pepper, freshly ground, to taste
- 1 quart chicken or vegetable broth
- 1/3-1/2 cup light cream or half-and-half
In a heavy pot, brown the bacon pieces until they are crisp and have rendered most of their fat. Spoon off all but 1 tablespoon of fat. Reserve for another use (such as cornbread). Add leeks and cook until softened. Add remaining ingredients, except the cream. You can add up to 1 cup of water too to “stretch” the soup if necessary. Cook until the potatoes have softened, 10 to 15 minutes. Add cream and reheat gently.
For New England Clam or Mussel Chowder: Substitute bottled clam juice or fish stock for all or part of the stock, as well as the strained cooking liquid from briefly steaming 2 quarts of small clams or 2 pounds of mussels. Remove the cooked shellfish from their shells (or open a 7-ounce can of clams) and add to soup.
For Corn Chowder: Add the kernels cut from two cooked ears of corn or 2 cups frozen corn or a 14- to 16-ounce can of creamed corn. Or see my recipe here.