Sunday, February 13, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: Connecticut I - Clear Clam Chowdah

I have now reached Connecticut, the southernmost state of New England. And like the South and Southwest, New England is a region of the country with a lot of very region-specific specialties that are both 1) well-known around the country, and 2) still usually found in that region alone. It's also a region 3) whose specialties are not often state-specific, but found throughout the entire region. So this and many of my other New England posts may end up reflecting not just the culinary history of that state, but the entire northeastern-most corner of the country.

Snacking State-by-State: Connecticut

Official Name: State of Connecticut
State Nicknames: The Nutmeg State, The Constitution State, The Provisions State, The Land of Steady Habits
Admission to the US: January 9, 1788 (#5)
Capital: Hartford (3rd largest city)
Other Important Cities: Bridgeport (largest), New Haven (2nd largest), Stamford (4th largest)
Region: Northeast, New England; New England (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Clambake
Bordered by: Massachusetts (north); Rhode Island (east); Long Island Sound and Long Island, New York (south); New York (west)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: Eastern oyster (shellfish)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: oysters, clams, lobsters, haddock, typical New England dishes (Indian pudding, whoopie pie, chowder - including several types of clam chowder), Election cake, apizza (Neapolitan-style pizza pronounced "a-PEETZ"), Portuguese cuisine

Before this project, my total exposure to all things culinarily Connecticut consisted of: 1) New England clam chowder; and 2) the various food references in The Stepford Wives. I found that the first was not as clear-cut as I and every other non-New Englander had at first thought. The second caused various robotic phrases to echo through my head all throughout my cooking:

The food of Connecticut and of New England is true, hearty Yankee eating. Not "Yankee" in the "not Southerner" sense, or the "Come on, you Yanks!" sense, or especially the dreaded "pinstripe" sense. Despite all the New Yorkers, Connecticut is still, mostly, Red Sox land. This is "Yankee" in the original sense of the term: a New Englander. Or at least so E.B. White was said to have defined the term: a person from New England, specifically someone from Vermont who "eats pie for breakfast". Just wait until we get to Vermont sometime in 2012.

Perhaps you can divide Connecticut up into a few regions of its own, based on the types of clam chowders you typically find there. There is the southwestern corner - the so-called "Gold Coast" - which is culturally tied to New York City and its "Manhattan" clam chowder that seems to make true Yankees wretch. There is the northern, more specifically "New England", part of the state, whose clam chowder is most familiar to the rest of the country - a chowder which is characteristic of Boston. And there is the south coast, which runs parallel to Long Island to the south. Their clam chowder is one of several regional variations I had never heard of, along with the reddish Rhode Island variety and the milky, buttery kind you find in Maine.

The one I made is that typical one from southern Connecticut (by the way, here is an instructive discussion on the Chowhound website, where one transplanted Texan tries to wrap her head around what constitutes a true Connecticut-style chowder). Brooke Dojny, author of Dishing Up Maine and New England Clam Shack Cookbook, the source for the recipe I used, explains this chowder succinctly:
Southern New England clam chowder: Almost always starts with salt pork, thickened only with floury potatoes, and a broth-and-water base. Made with chopped hard-shell clams. [Dojny 2008:50]
Dojny notes that there is often fierce disagreement between different regions of New England - "or even people from neighboring towns in the same region" (Dojny 2008:50). Hopefully I will not have pissed off any angry Yankees when they muse over my very first attempt at Southern New England clam chowder.

The recipe: Semi-Clear Clam Chowder (Southern New England-Style)

I use Dojny's "Semi-Clear Clam Chowder" (also on Google Books here). She gets this recipe from Lenny & Joe's in Westbrook, Connecticut. And as with the other recipes I've interpreted for this series, I had to take a liberty here or there with the ingredients. The one thing I did not do: halve or quarter the recipe. This time, I made the whole thing:

Don't fret about that big bottle of milk, Nutmeg Staters - I did not use it, as you will soon find out.

* salt pork (about $4.50 for 12 ounces - I used about a quarter of the package, or three pieces)
* chopped onion (got it - I was also supposed to use celery, but this I did not have on hand)
* clam juice (about $2)
* water (not so difficult to find)
* potatoes ($2 from the farmers' market - about 1 1/2 pounds, or 5 cups diced)

* chopped hard-shell clams with their liquor (I spent much more money on this than I should have - after buying four cans of Chicken of the Sea clams from San Diego - total on sale $8 - I found a nice frozen tub of clams from Cape Cod - $5.50 - that were exactly the amount I needed)
* evaporated milk (I almost used whole milk, as you can see. I had no evaporated milk, but see below for the quick replacement I found for it)
* salt and pepper

What surprised me most about this recipe was how fast and simple it was, but I guess that's what a chowder is all about.

First, render the pork...

...which you should chop up, I might add...

Once rendered, remove and discard it and fry up the onions in the drippings. Add the water, clam juice and clam liquor, and then the potatoes.

Boil, reduce heat and keep it at a boil for a while (see her recipe for exact times).

Then comes the diva of this recipe - the clams. Add and simmer for a few more minutes. Then add the evaporated milk and seasonings, and - gasp - it's done!

A note on the evaporated milk: as you saw in that ingredient photo, I had originally thought to substitute regular milk for the evaporated, merely adjusting the limits as needed. That is not a good idea. What I needed to do was to go out and buy some evaporated milk (sorry, not going out mid-boil), or boil down that milk severely (which I had neither the time nor the patience to do), or else create a substitute from the dry milk in my pantry.

I went this last route, using quantities from this page on that suggests mixing 2/3 cup fat free dry powdered milk with 3/4 cup water. Then use however much of it you need.

I was not sure how I would like this clam chowder, since like the rest of us outside of New England, I am used to the Boston kind. Though I still say I prefer the most famous variety, I found the semi-clear version very simple, filling, clammy (in a good way) and comforting. It is everything I imagine a clam chowder is supposed to be. It was not too overwhelming like a richer, butterier or creamier clam chowder might have been, and as such I found myself going back for seconds the first few times I indulged in this clam chowder. Oyster crackers were a simple and satisfying addition to this soup.

Sources: "What Constitutes a Good CT Clam Chowder?" Thread started June 16, 2009, by poster Scargod.

Dojny, Brooke. The New England Clam Shack Cookbook. 2nd edition. Storey Publishing: North Adams, MA, 2008. Portions also available on Google Books.

Donroe, Tammy. "Indian Pudding". Food on the Food, April 22, 2010.

Ericalea (poster). "A Family Recipe: Yankee Cornbread". Tasty Kitchen Blog, November 5, 2010.

Pollack, Ann and Joe. "Election Cake". St. Louis Eats and Drinks With Joe and Ann Pollack

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Connecticut" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods webpage link to "Connecticut”.