Just before the storm arrived that saw us driven at speed in a golf cart back to the shelter of our car, we’d been exploring Lovers Key, a small state park on the gulf coast of Florida where a beach shack sold large solo cups filled to the brim with chowder for only $4.
Packed with locally caught fish and seafood, including large, bouncy chunks of conch in a tomato and datil pepper stock, it was very different from the cream-enriched New England versions and is said to have evolved from the clam chowders cooked by Minorcan settlers who first arrived in Florida around 1768.
Chowder itself is said to have got its name from chaudiere, the name of the pot in which it is cooked. French settlers arrived in Nova Scotia from the 1600s onwards and over time their version of chowder made its way down the eastern seaboard to New England and milk, cream, and diced potatoes became its culinary leitmotif. I prefer the tomato-based chowders, probably popularised by the large population of Italians in New York State and the Portuguese fishing communities of Rhode Island, their having much in common with San Franciscan cioppino which I also adore.
Molly O’Neill, one of my favourite food writers, has railed against chowders containing tomato, referring to them as ‘an act of culinary sabotage’. We’ll have to agree to disagree.
Most seaboard regions have their own seafood and fish stews. Locally, I’ve found a Colchester oyster stew which is heavily milk-based but little evidence of the kind of chowder I’ve created here which celebrates the plentiful and high quality East Anglian seafood and cured meats. And what bounty it is. From Norfolk we have Brancaster mussels and Stiffkey Blue cockles to choose from. In Suffolk we have our very own black bacon, cured in molasses and spices which add a bit of funk to the broth. I bought my cockles, mussels and clams from the consistently excellent Mummery Brothers whose van visits Bury St Edmunds on a biweekly basis and the bacon is from Emmetts of Peasenhall who also do mail order but you can substitute any decent bacon.
This chowder is packed with clams and tiny Stiffkey blue cockles which get their name from the anaerobic mud they live in. Inexpensive to buy, cockles give up their sweet brine to the chowder as it simmers on the stove top, whilst a few more are held over to be added towards the end of the cooking process for textural contrast. The slightly metallic, anise sweetness of fennel complements the cockles while the inclusion of potatoes and Suffolk black bacon is both a nod to the chowder’s New England counterpart and provides body and comfort – important during our endless East Anglian winters and cold springs.
COCKLE AND MUSSEL CHOWDER
3 rashers Suffolk black bacon
3 shallots, fine diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium ribs celery, fine diced,
1 large fennel bulb cut into fat slices, fronds saved for garnish
300g small new potatoes
2 medium carrots, fine diced
3 sprigs thyme
2 x 400g cans whole tomatoes in juice, crushed
600g Brancaster mussels, scrubbed.
300g Stiffkey cockles
handful large, raw prawns
700 ml fish stock
200 ml white wine
salt and pepper
You will need a large, heavy-based frying pan, a saucepan for the potatoes and a deep, wide stove top cooking pot or similar.
1. Fry the fine diced carrot, shallot, garlic and celery in olive oil over low heat until it softened. Set aside. Add 150g of the cockles to the pan along with the the bacon and gently fry until the fat renders and the bacon starts to colour then remove the cockles and bacon from the pan and set aside. Place the fennel slices in the remaining bacon fat (add olive oil if pan looks dry) and fry over medium heat until it starts to colour. Set aside.
2. Put the clams in a large, deep pot, add 14 fl oz of water, then set over medium heat and cover and cook until clams have opened, which should take about 10 to 12 minutes maximum: keep an eye on them. Discard any that fail to open after 12 minutes then drain the pot. When cooled, remove most of the clam meat from shells, leaving a few shells with meat intact. Rinse out the pot.
3. Place potatoes into plenty of hot, salted water and simmer until they are parboiled. Drain and set aside.
4. Place the shallot, garlic, celery and carrots mixture into your large deep pot and add the bacon and cockle mixture, the sliced fennel, thyme sprigs and both cans of tomatoes. Stir over low heat for 5 minutes, then add the fish stock and wine and turn heat to medium.
5. Partly cover the pot, and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Make up more fish stock if necessary and add if liquid levels become low.
6. Add the potatoes, the prawns and all of the mussels, then stir to combine. Cover and cook over medium heat until the potatoes are tender, the prawns cooked and the mussels steamed to open. This should be a matter of minutes. Stir in the clam meat and clams in shells and the rest of the cockles until they are gently heated through. Now the chowder can come off the heat. Discard any unopened mussels, adjust the seasoning, scatter over the chopped fennel fronds and serve.
Feeds 4 very generously.
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