closer to “home” clam chowder

I like food. All kinds of food prepared in all kinds of ways. In fact I’d like to think there aren’t that many food-realted absolutes in my world; sure I like my coffee strong, my chocolate dark and my curry spicy. I hate fast-food, I’m not a big fan of pb&j’s and I can’t stand pancakes. I am however willing to consider an exception to all those rules, if it’s the right exception. Where things become hard and fast is when we start talking about dishes connected to my Connecticut childhood.

My family was the car trip type; gas on up, pile on in and move on out. Whether it was driving for hours on our way to a fun-filled vacation or just going out for a drive because it was a beautiful Sunday without pressing plans— my parents were always up for it. We met a wide range of people on our travels and the opportunity to experience an endless array of different foods was always part of the adventure. It was fun, it was eye-opening and I’m pretty sure it was the basis for my love of food. I saw a considerable amount of the country from the backseat of our station wagon, but it was the time we spent traveling through the New England countryside that was always my favorite. This is no doubt the reason I have such a longing to move back and such an unflinching opinion on how some of the foods I associate with New England should be enjoyed. For example; In my book Lobster Rolls are carefree summer food meant to be eaten out of little paper trays, preferably at picnic tables with squawking sea gulls nearby. They should never be considered fancy restaurant food that costs a small fortune. French Fries taste the best cut thin and doused with salt and malted vinegar, not ketchup. (And take it from me, they taste even better if you happen to purchase them from a booth at a local country fair.) And Clam Chowder should never be anything but creamy and white. Sorry Rhode Island, but your permission to call the seafood soup you’re famous for clam chowder should be revoked. And don’t even get me stated on Manhattan.

Until recently I had never made New England Clam Chowder, but I figured there was no time like this snowy winter to give it a shot. I knew my son had grown fond of it while spending time in Connecticut with my parents, my husband I were already fans and my daughter was a soup lover from way back— so why not? The thing that made me hesitant about clam chowder, or any cream based soup for that matter, is its lofty calorie count. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t normally do things like count calories, avoid carbs or drink spritzers just to shave 100 calories off my day. But if a lighter version of something can appear, taste and satisfy the same way the full fat version does, then I’m all for it. So I decided that if I was going to make New England Clam Chowder I would try to make a “lighter” version. I did some recipe research and spoke with my dyed-in-the-wool New England mother (who frankly was aghast when I suggested possibly adding celery, garlic or a bay leaf to the recipe) and finally worked out a creamy, delicious but not overly guilt inducing recipe. A recipe that makes New Jersey seem a little closer to “home”.

New England Clam Chowder
This chowder is delicious with a thinner more traditional broth, not pasty, gloppy and heavy like clam chowder can sadly sometimes be.

clam chowder2

1 cup white wine
2 8 oz bottles clam juice
2 lbs. russet potatoes, peeled and diced large
3 slices bacon, minced
1 medium onion (about 2 cups), diced small
4 6.5 oz cans chopped clams*, drained, juices reserved
1/2 cup 2% milk
1 cup low-fat half and half
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1-2 tbsp. ground arrowroot powder
oyster crackers, for serving

  1. Drain the canned clams, reserving the juice and set aside. Add to a large pan the white wine, bottled clam juice, reserved clam juice and diced potatoes and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cover and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and set aside.
  2. Heat a large stock pot over medium heat, add the bacon and cook until it gets crispy and brown and render its fat. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the onions to the pot and sauté until they’re translucent, about 10 minutes. Lower the heat and gradually whisk in the milk and half and half.
  3. Bring just to a simmer, then stir in the clams, bacon and potato mixture and bring back to a simmer, stirring frequently. Allow to cook for 5 minutes.
  4. Remove the pot from the heat, stir in the black pepper and arrowroot powder (1-2 tablespoons depending on how thick you want the chowder) and serve with plenty of oyster crackers.

* When I set out to make this recipe I fully intended to use fresh clams however, the selection at the three stores I went to was pathetic! So instead I bought the best “gourmet” canned clams I could find and omitted any additional salt from the recipe. I still plan to try this recipe with fresh clams, but until then…

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gnocchi tinged memories

When I was a little girl nothing would please me more than a trip to the local G. Fox & Co. department store. I’d talk my mother into taking the escalator upstairs to the housewares department and that’s when the fun would begin. I would wander around the department reading the little bridal registry cards attached to each place setting, imagining which espresso machine or serving platter I would choose and dreaming of the day grown-up me would finally be able to register for all the housewares my little heart desired. I wasn’t dreaming of being a bride mind you, I was dreaming of having a fully stocked kitchen. Funny right? But true none the less.

My love of housewares hasn’t diminished at all over the years, which would explain why I own: Five sets of dishes (we had a yard sale a few years ago and I sold my two “extra” sets), enough serving pieces to easily set a buffet for a hundred, a ridiculous number of tiny antique aperitif glasses, a crazy collection of water pitchers, just about every size and shape cocktail glass imaginable, a huge variety of pots, pans and steamers, a cast iron skillet, Dutch oven and griddle, a kitchen scale, stand mixer, potato ricer and several sizes of box graters, not to mention an array of blenders and hand mixers, a waffle iron, espresso machine, regular coffee maker and a set of individual serving ice cream makers, plus all your standard whisks, spatulas, spoons and whatnot. (Yes I realize my love may border on obsession. We all have our vices.) However, believe it or not there is actually one cooking implement that I do not have but have seriously considered… a pasta maker. I thought more than once about buying an attachment for my KitchenAid stand mixer, but one thing always stopped me. What if I found making pasta to be just as frustrating and disastrous as my attempts to make bread?!? Those attachments can be quite pricy and that just wasn’t a financial (or emotional) commitment I was ready to make. But that didn’t mean I was willing to give up my desire to make fresh pasta— come now silly reader, you know me better than that! No instead I decided to approach pasta making in the simplest fashion possible, one that required limited special equipment and with a recipe that seemed nearly fool-proof. My recipe of choice— gnocchi.

I first discovered gnocchi in college when my boyfriend (now husband) took me to dinner at Louis Seafood on E. Tremont Ave. in the Bronx. The restaurant has been around since the 40’s and it was and still is the epitome of good Italian comfort food with a side of Bronx attitude. I had considered myself fairly well versed in pasta (being half Italian and all) but somehow gnocchi had never made it on my radar. The gnocchi at Louis Seafood was unlike anything I had ever tried, it was dense and filling (especially with the Bolognese sauce he always seemed to order) but at the same time I couldn’t stop myself from snitching forkfuls off his plate. For years the term gnocchi make think of college, the Bronx and Louis Seafood. Then we traveled to Florence, Italy and my perception of gnocchi completely changed.

We arrived in Florence late one afternoon after a long train ride from Rome, and we were starving! So hungry in fact that once we physically found our hotel we didn’t even step foot inside it. Instead we dragged our luggage to the little cafe next door in hopes of getting something to eat. “Oh, mi dispiace signora.” the waiter said “La cucina è chiusa.” We looked at him in disbelief, we were starving and the kitchen was CLOSED?!? This was Italy for peat’s sake, they were soposta feed us till we popped! Thankfully the waiter sensed our desperation and decided that he could in fact offer us a few limited selections off the menu. We collapsed in our chairs, ordered a few glasses of vino rosso, looked over the menu and placed our lunch order. I’ll be honest with you, I have absolutely no idea what I ate that day. The only thing I remember of the meal is my husbands gnocchi. It was like air, little puffs of loveliness, amazing and unlike anything I had ever imagined gnocchi could be. It’s been quite a few years since that trip to Florence yet every so often one of us still wistfully mentions that gnocchi.

When I decided to try my own hand at homemade gnocchi I truly didn’t anticipate stellar results. It seemed like the opportunity for heavy little lead sinkers was just too great. So imagine my delight when they turned out light, airy and delicious. There not quite Florence quality gnocchi, but then nothing could ever possibly be, they are however the closest we’ve ever come to replicating that amazing Italian meal. Buon appetito!

Simple Potato Gnocchi
These were as wonderful as the ones we always reminisce about eating in Florence, as evidenced by the nearly clean plate below.

gnocchi3

4 cups riced russet potatoes, (about 2 large)
4 egg yolks
2 1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
sauce of your choice, for serving
optional special equipment: potato ricer, gnocchi paddle

  1. Place potatoes (skin on) in a large pot of salted water and boil until tender when pierced with a fork. Drain the potatoes, let them cool just enough to handle and then peel. Cut each in half and place in a potato ricer. Rice into a large bowl. Stir in the egg yolks and salt, then add the flour and stir until a shaggy dough forms. Knead gently until a smooth but slightly sticky dough forms.
  2. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and dust with flour. Divide the dough into 8 pieces. Lightly flour a work surface and roll each piece into a 3/4-inch-thick rope, then cut each rope into one-inch pieces. Place each piece against the gnocchi paddle and gently roll with your pointer finger to make ridges on one side and a small indentation on the other; drop onto the prepared baking sheet and repeat the process with the other ropes.
  3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer and add the raw gnocchi, 36 at a time. Allow to cook until they rise to the surface, then simmer for another 2 minutes longer. Add to a bowl with you’re favorite sauce, sprinkle with the cheese and serve.

To Make Ahead: The uncooked gnocchi pieces can be frozen on the prepared baking sheet, then transferred to a resealable plastic bag and frozen for up to 1 month. Boil without defrosting.

*adapted from food & wine