In New England, a bowl of award-winning chowder can be found around every corner. But honestly, there are not many worthy of the honor. Most arrive at the table in the midst of a perfect storm: either so thick that your spoon stands at attention, or so overcooked the clams taste like rubber bands, if you can find them at all.
Here on the North Coast, there is no shortage of seafood chowders that are less anchored in tradition and more attuned to what’s fresh, what’s local and what’s really tasty. Think applewood smoked bacon rather than salt pork, and smoked salmon rather than clams, simmered in a savory broth of delicious Sonoma County cream.
In advance of the 13th annual Chowder Day in Bodega Bay this Saturday — a progressive tasting event and contest among a baker’s dozen of restaurants and seafood shacks — we talked to eight local chefs who work on the North Coast to see how they improvise on the age-old theme.
Chowders have a long history that reaches back to the rustic seafood stews of coastal England and France. The European stews crossed the Atlantic with the colonists, evolving to include seaworthy staples such as onions and potatoes, salt pork and seafood such as cod, oysters and clams.
“Authentic chowder is characterized by generous chunks of local seasonal ingredients served in a moderate amount of broth,” wrote the renowned New England chef Jasper White in his cookbook, “50 Chowders.” “Another basic characteristic of chowder is its ease of preparation — even chowders that take more than an hour to make don’t require anything more than keeping an eye on the pot.”
The chowder at the Duck Club in Bodega Bay, made by native New Englander Jeff Reilly, is one of the most traditional that you’ll find around these parts.
“The consistency is key, and the balance between the salty and the creamy and the textures of the clams and fish,” Reilly said. “We use Clover butter and cream, and that does make a difference.”
Reilly renders the fat from applewood bacon by putting it in simmering water, then sauté s the vegetables in the bacon fat. He makes sure the bacon gets nice and crispy but not overcooked. The chowder is thickened slightly with a small amount of butter and flour.
“We use just enough roux so it coats but it doesn’t feel thick and pasty,” he said. “We cook the Yukon golds separately until they are just right.”
The tender clams are thrown in at the last minute so they don’t overcook. Reilly also adds salmon and halibut, if he has them on hand.
Chef Richard Whipple of the Heritage House in Little River, who previously cooked at the Sea Ranch Lodge, also makes a traditional clam chowder he learned from a New England chef he worked with at the El Dorado Hotel in Sonoma.
“I use applewood smoked bacon,” he said. “And I finish it with a good, dry sherry ... that adds a sweetness and a nuttiness.”
For the clams, Whipple prefers to use large ones that come chopped up and frozen, rather than canned clams. But if you’re making your own chowder, you may consider throwing in a few fresh clams as well.
“Sometimes you can get fresh clam strips at Santa Rosa Seafood,” he said. “And I love the Manila clams.”