It’s hard not to feel homesick for New England these days, with a chill in the air and Thanksgiving right around the corner, so it’s been with extra spirit that I’ve been working on this recipe — New England-Meets-Basque-Style Clam and Salt Cod Chowder — for an upcoming class, where we’ll prepare a special Basque Thanksgiving feast.
It’s been a sweeping, aromatic journey down memory lane, through the clam shacks of my childhood in Massachusetts, with their heaps of steamers and hearty chowders (not to mention their fisherman’s platters and steamed lobsters, but I’ll save those for other dishes!)…
…and up to the present day, through the kitchens of the Basque country, with their sweet choricero peppers, smokey Pimentón de la Vera, and beloved bacalao, or salt cod. (In Castillian Spanish, bacalao, and in Basque, bakailaoa, also refer more generally to the fish species, Atlantic cod, but in most Basque recipes, it refers to salt cod, unless otherwise indicated as fresh.)
But before we dig into the recipe, let’s get a better handle on chowder. According to Merriam-Webster, a chowder is “a thick soup or stew made of seafood or corn with potatoes and onions and milk or tomatoes.”
Where I come from, the region of New England, the king of all chowders is the clam chowder. Across individual states in the region, people have very strong opinions about (many things, including) what makes a good, authentic clam chowder, and these opinions vary quite definitively. (Varieties of clams also vary across the region, and specific, highly local clam-based recipes abound, as described in a wonderful 1986 piece by Florence Fabricant in the New York Times.)
Perhaps the widest known of the clam chowders is the New England-style clam chowder, revered in the more northern states of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. It is essentially clams and potatoes in a clam broth thickened with milk or cream and sometimes with flour and/or oyster crackers. Up north, people generally prefer it thick and creamy. It might have something to do with the long, cold winters.
But head a bit south and things change. Rhode Islanders like their clam chowder broth clear, with no milk or cream. Simply delicious. New Yorkers (just below New England) like it translucent but red, with tomatoes, and the same goes for many folks in Connecticut (though not universally, as traditional New England-style chowders and hybrids also abound).
This is unsettling for the folks up north. Most Mainers can’t bear the thought of tomatoes in a clam chowder. In her NY Times piece, Fabricant reminds us, “In Maine in 1939 a bill was introduced in the legislature making it illegal to add tomatoes to the chowder.” Strong opinions indeed.
My strong opinion is that a great clam chowder should have a hint of creaminess in its body, to suspend the flavors in place, as my husband put it, but that creaminess should never go so far as to mask the glories of the broth. And if tomatoes join the party in the pot, we’re heading out of chowder territory and toward the Portuguese and Italian seafood stews also beloved along the New England coast.
I love this recipe; it’s what I look for in a chowder — it’s at once hearty and substantial, yet it remains delicate and fragrant, and the flavors of the clams and fish come shining through. Just in time for our Basque Thanksgiving feast, it strikes a perfect balance for me between what I have known “forever” in my New Englander bones about great chowders, and what I have been absorbing since I came to live on the other side of the Atlantic. I hope you love it too!