Clam Chowder

 

 

This past Sunday I went to my dad’s house on Lake Washington to celebrate his birthday. I will save the details of this tako yaki showdown for another time, but it prompted a memory of the clam chowder we made on Christmas – worth mentioning right now.

Rewind 3-ish months to when my dad, brother and I slathered bagels with cream cheese and layered each side with lox, savoring Christmas morning.

While my brother and I unpacked the too-skinny stockings my grandmother knit when we were born, my dad roared with laughter from his lawn chair (yes, he has a beautiful house but doesn’t have any furniture in his living room).

My brother pulled out a shirt that said “I love spam.” My dad threw his head back, bringing his fist to his mouth and teetering the feeble chair on its hind legs. (I remember this so clearly, and then I realized I even have a picture of this exactly moment!)

I ripped open into the tissue paper wrapping to find nail clippers with a magnifying glass attached from his trip to Japan. He laughed so hard his face was purple. I didn’t know presents could be so amusing, but he was getting a kick out of each one. Next came the surfboard beer opener, the crab cracking device and a re-gifted box of fleur de sel. Though, as random as this seems, I do love any form of fancy salt.

For Christmas dinner, we made a big pot of clam chowder. This nostalgically fatty meal, in one form or another, has always been major in my family. I grew up eating it: to-go from QFC before toddler ballet class, at seafood restaurants my dad took us to when we visited him in Seattle, and mostly, from a Progresso can.

My dad and I tried and failed to make it when I was 7.

Because of that experience, I hadn’t tried to make it again, until last Christmas. The three of us poured over ingredients in the kitchen – Duncan vigorously chopping for mise en place, my dad washing the clams and steaming them in white wine and herbs.

My dad took a break to hacky sack, which he claims is the way he is going to get in shape in 2016.

The three of us sat down to the dinner table with a loaf of homemade bread and bowls of the most perfect clam chowder. We’re all snobs, and there is nothing we would have changed about it. True to his form, Thomas Keller wrote a high maintenance recipe. I followed most of it and ditched a few things. Here is the simpler version.

Serves 6 (Makes 3 quarts)//Ad Hoc at Home

  • 8 ounces bacon (preferably slab bacon)
  • Canola oil
  • 2 cups coarsely chopped leeks (white and light green parts only)
  • 2 cups coarsely chopped onions
  • 5 garlic cloves
  • 2 thyme sprigs + 1 bay leaf + 1 smashed garlic clove
  • 2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 4 pound littleneck clams or Manilla clams
  • 1 1/4 cups kosher salt for the clam washing
  • 4 1/2 tablespoons (2 1/4 ounces) unsalted butter + 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup chopped shallots
  • 2 thyme sprigs
  • Kosher salt and finely ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 cups whole milk
  • 3 cups heavy cream
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped chives for garnish

*Note: All of the clam washing seems tedious, but there is truly nothing worse in a clam chowder than grit.

Cut the bacon into small 1/2 inch thick pieces. Heat some canola oil in an 8-to-10 quart stockpot over medium heat. Add the bacon and reduce the heat to low, letting the fat render for 20-25 minutes. The bacon should color but not become crispy. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon from the pan.

Add the leeks, onions and garlic to the pan and stir. Sprinkle with salt and cover with a lid, cooking slowly, until the vegetables are tender.

Put the potatoes in a large saucepan with 1 smashed garlic clove, 2 teaspoons of salt, 1 bay leaf and 2 sprigs of thyme. Cover with cold water and bring to a simmer, cooking until just tender.

Drain in a colander and run cold water over them to stop the cooking process. Discard the garlic and herbs.

Clean the clams with a scrubby brush, removing any sand. Place in a large bowl with 8 cups of water and the salt, stirring to dissolve. Make sure there is enough water to cover the clams, and let them soak for about 5 minutes, drawing out any leftover sand from them. Take the clams out of the water and rise one more time in a colander.

When the vegetables are tender, increase the heat to medium and add the 4 1/2 tablespoons butter. Once melted, add the flour to coat the vegetables and continue to cook for 2-3 minutes. Whisk in the milk and cream, season to taste with salt and pepper and bring to a low simmer.

Melt the 2 tablespoons of butter in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and thyme sprigs, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring for about 1 minute until tender. Add the wine, bring to a boil and cook for about 2 minutes to evaporate some of the alcohol. Add the clams, cover the pan, and cook for about 4 minutes, removing the clams as they open. Strain all of the clam liquid through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl.

Shell the clams and set aside.

Gently stir the clam liquid to taste into the soup pot (avoiding adding any visible sand if possible). Season the chowder with salt and pepper to taste. Add the potatoes and about two thirds of the clams.

Garnish the soup with remaining clams, bacon and chopped chives.

 

 

 

 

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Chard and Sausage Strata

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Christmas morning my mom and I woke up and cleaned the kitchen. I looked down at the dishes I was scrubbing and said, “Mom remember when I would wake up at 6 am Christmas morning and sprint to my presents? I want to feel that sugar plum fairy excitement.”

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Presents no longer seem to give me that feeling like they did when I was a kid, but Christmas brunch does. I pulled my grandmother Bunny’s coffee walnut chocolate chip muffins out of the oven, a sentimental smell permeating the room. My mom made a citrus salad. We bantered back and forth about how much honey to drizzle over the top. My brother and dad knocked on my door. My dad told my mom she really needs to start aging and then they bonded over their mutual plantar fasciitis. (I’m going to get a text from my dad after this post goes up saying yet again I’ve put him on “blast.”)

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We opened our stockings, and I pulled my strata out of the oven. We swooned over the soft, custard center with a crunchy top. The bread was crusty in all the right places with ribbons of chard throughout. Everyone loved it.

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Generally we make Grandpa Mackey’s famous breakfast casserole with white bread and cream of mushroom soup among other things. It’s one of those really bad Midwest treasures that is remarkably satisfying. This year my dad requested that we take it up a notch.

Makes 1 hefty casserole//Dahlia Bakery Cookbook

Ingredients

  • 1 loaf of rustic bread, about 1 1/2 pounds
  • 1 pound bulk Italian sausage
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 12 ounces wild mushrooms like shiitake, chanterelle, button or oyster, sliced
  • 1 pound chard, stems removed
  • 2 teaspoons thinly sliced chives
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • 12 ounces cheddar, grated
  • 6 large eggs
  • 2 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Butter a 9 x 13-inch baking pan. Cut bread into 3/4 to 1-inch cubes. You should have about 6 cups loosely packed bread.

Place sausage in a skillet over medium-high heat, breaking it up with a spatula. Cook until no pink remains, about 10 minutes.

Remove the sausage with a slotted spoon and set aside. To the same pan, add the onion and cook over medium heat until soft. Add the butter and olive oil to the skillet and toss in the mushrooms. Cook until tender and then transfer to a bowl.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the chard and cook until tender, about 2 minutes. Drain the chard and plunge the chard into a bowl of ice water. Drain again. Squeeze out as much of the water as possible. Roughly chop and add to the bowl of mushrooms and onions. Add the sausage, bread, chives and thyme. Reserve 3/4 of a cup of the cheese and then stir in the remainder. Transfer the contents of the bowl to the greased dish.

Whisk the eggs, cream, salt and pepper. Pour over the rest of the ingredients. Use a spatula to press down on the bread and submerge it as much as possible. Sprinkle the reserved cheese over the top. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a couple hours or overnight.

When you’re ready to bake, remove the plastic wrap and heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bake until the top is golden and the center is firm. Allow to cool for 10 minutes and serve.

Cowgirl Creamery

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When parents divorce, you are forced to create new traditions. In high school I began spending Christmas Eve with Mom and Christmas with Dad. The first year we did this, my mom successfully subdued my laments about Christmas as a family…with a cheese plate.

She went to the Delicatessen down the street in Missoula and picked up a few cheeses wrapped in butcher paper and a twine bow. She spread the cheeses out on a large, white plate, each with their own small knife. She sliced apple, like she used to, and set it next to the cheeses, offering a crisp, fruity bite to contrast with the fattier, creamier nibbles.

We plopped on her sandy-colored, Pottery Barn couch with simultaneous sighs. We dove into the plate, clutched the corresponding knives, and dug into our respective cheeses.

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Christmas Eve a few years ago, a round soft cheese found its way onto our plate. Someone behind the cheese counter recommended Cowgirl Creamery’s Mount Tam. I don’t generally like the rind on any cheese, but Cowgirl Creamery’s are mild and only enhance the center’s flavor.

This year, thanks to the Cowgirl’s themselves, three of Cowgirl Creamery’s cheeses dominated our plate: Mt. Tam, Devil’s Gulch and Red Hawk. We went back and forth but ultimately decided Mt. Tam remains our favorite.