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Patti Bess: Christmas memories and a bowl of chowder

The presents are wrapped and the table is set. Let the feasting begin. Isn’t it true that so many of our memories of Christmases past that drift up from our subconscious are about the food? It is what connects us to each other. Food is one thing every culture has in common.

More than the food, it’s the people around the table that make up our memories. My father’s insistence on at least some oyster dressing. My grandmother making virgin Tom & Jerrys for all the cousins. Our children bringing their new Mickey and Minnie mouse dolls to the Christmas table. And, of course, my mother lifting that huge turkey out of the oven to baste it, and the scent of roasting turkey.

When my daughter Theresa was eight, one of her Christmas gifts was an outing with me for some shopping in San Francisco. The other important goal of our adventure was a steaming bowl of clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf. I remember sitting at a table overlooking the bay enjoying our soup in big round rolls of bread. Her little mind and body squirming with the curiosity and enthusiasm of childhood. The waiter looking askance at us and grumbling when we dropped a spoon or tipped the water glass. And I still laugh remembering her not so soft voice saying, “He’s not very nice to us, mom.”



We did look like a couple of back country hooligans. As I still do today when traveling down the hill, we overdressed in rain boots and enough sweaters and overcoats to stay toasty in the foothills. And there was this matter of a brown paper bag that creeped along the tablecloth. A Christmas present to take home — a live turtle from a fish market in Chinatown.

Clam chowder has always been a winter favorite of our family. Maybe the perfect soup for your New Year’s Day? Over the years I experimented often to get it right. This recipe is adapted from an article by Michael Bauer, the food editor of the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. A page torn out and stuffed into the “keep” file.



I made a few of my own adaptations. Most chowders are made with whipping cream, but I used half and half. You don’t get that thick, creamy texture, but I just couldn’t go there. Another way to make it creamier is to cut the potatoes into larger chunks. When they’re soft, mash them and add back to the soup.

Ambitious cooks may want to use fresh clams, but convenience ranks high in my book so I use the canned ones. The Canto clams were more flavorful, less fishy tasting and not as rubbery as some others. Don’t buy the cheapest varieties. Bauer’s recipe also included four ounces of bacon, cooked until crisp and crumbled. It does give a smoky nuance to the flavor which you might prefer. I included the chopped red pepper to enliven the color and add a hint of sweetness.

Yes, it takes time to make a chowder, but this made enough for several meals for two people. Secrets of success of any soup and especially chowder is to make it a day or even two before you want to serve it. It’s the easiest way to deepen the flavors and make it taste like you’re looking out at the bay on Fisherman’s Wharf. Enjoy!

Clam Chowder

One quarter cup olive oil

One medium onion, chopped fine

One cup celery, chopped fine

One medium leek, chopped

Three quarters cup chopped red pepper

One half cup chopped fennel (optional)

Two cloves garlic, minced

Two cups dry white wine

Two cups bottled clam juice

Two cups vegetable stock

Three medium size Russet potatoes, cut into bite-size pieces

Two bay leaves

One heaping teaspoon dried thyme

One heaping teaspoon basil

One half teaspoon summer savory (optional)

Two cans best quality clams (about 8 ounces each)

Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Two cups half & half or heavy cream (Whichever preferred)

Three tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed stock pot over medium-low. Add the celery, onion, leek, red pepper, fennel and garlic. Cover the pan and cook on a low burner until vegetables are tender but not browned, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes.

Add the wine. Increase the heat to medium, bring to a boil until the liquid is reduced by almost half, about 10 minutes.

Add the clam juice, vegetable broth, raw potatoes, clams, thyme, bay and basil. Reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook until the potatoes begin to fall apart, about 20 minutes.

Garnish each bowl with finely chopped parsley and enjoy.

Patti Bess is a freelance writer and recipe developer from Grass Valley. Her work has been published in more than 20 magazines.


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