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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Death Row Chicken

I love good food. And by that I don’t necessarily mean fancy or even artfully presented, but good. Food that someone has clearly put time and thought into. When I think about some of my favorite things to eat and favorite places to eat them, a few restaurants immediately spring to mind. There’s a little cafe in Manchester, Vermont that makes a killer Niçoise salad, a Portuguese restaurant in Newark, New Jersey with a flank steak in red wine sauce to die for and a coffee shop on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that serves an Eggs Benedict with spinach that literally makes my eyes roll. But, if you were to ask about my most favorite home-cooked dinner, my death row meal, it would without hesitation be roasted chicken. Yup, good ol’ soul satisfying roasted chicken.

I have apparently instilled my love of roasted chicken in my children because they actually cheer when I tell them that’s what’s for dinner (I’m a lucky mom!) and so I make it pretty regularly. Ordinarily when I roast a chicken it’s a fairly simple affair; salt and pepper, perhaps some lemon and onion in the cavity and a nice schmear of butter on the breast. If that’s all it takes to garner hoots and hollers from my family then why mess with it, right? But, (I know, there’s always a but) I just recently read a review of the Jane Hornby cookbook Fresh & Easy and in it they mentioned her roasted chicken with tarragon sauce. Hmmmm, we all love my no muss, no fuss chicken but maybe a little cream sauce now and then would turn the everyday and expected into something special. And it did.

Roasted Chicken with Tarragon Cream Sauce
This chicken is equally fantastic without the cream sauce, but the sauce really makes it something special.

1 5 lb. organic whole chicken
1 lemon
1 small onion
1 handful fresh tarragon
2 tbsp. butter, softened
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 lbs. small red potatoes, quartered
1 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 lb. green beans
8 oz. sliced mushrooms
1 cup frozen peas
3/4 cup brandy
1 cup light cream
1 1/4 cups chicken broth

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Rinse the chicken and liberally salt and pepper it inside and out. Cut the onion and lemon in half, squeeze the juice of half a lemon all over chicken and place the lemon, onion and a handful of the tarragon into the cavity of the chicken.
  2. Tie together the legs with kitchen twine and rub the softened butter all over the breast and thighs. Place the chicken in a roasting pan, add 1/2 cup of water to the bottom and roast for 40 minutes.
  3. Toss the quartered potatoes with olive oil. After the chicken has roasted for 40 minutes add the potatoes (cut side down) to the pan. Return to the oven and continue roasting for another 30-40 minutes or until the internal temp. reaches 165°F.
  4. When the chicken is golden and cooked and the potatoes are tender, transfer everything to a large oven proof platter, turn the oven off and place the platter in the oven to keep warm.
  5. Pour off any excess fat from the drippings in the pan. Place the pan on your stove top over low heat, then add the wine and let bubble (scraping up any cooked on bits) for 2 minutes. Add the cream, broth and green beans and let simmer for 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
  6. Add the frozen peas and mushrooms. Roughly chop the remaining tarragon, stir it into the sauce and return to a simmer. Continue to cook until the veggies are tender, about 8-10 minutes.
  7. Carve the chicken and serve with the vegetables and drizzled with cream sauce.

*adapted from Jane Hornby: Fresh & Easy