If you grew up in New England, it’s very difficult to stomach what passes for chowder in the rest of the country. Thick white concoctions packed with cornstarch and a few unidentifable clams, or worse, tomatoes. True chowder is buttery and only barely thickened by the crumbling of the potatoes. Milk or at most, light cream, are the dairy ingredients, and the flavor is based on salt pork and the freshest seafood you can buy.
Top seafood chowder can be had at the Maine Diner in Wells, ME – a day trip from Boston. This chowder was based on their recipe, with some hints from John Thorne’s Down East Chowder (since reprinted in the sublime Serious Pig. Since good salt pork is impossible to find in New York (if anyone has a source, please post), we used nitrate-free bacon from Vermont, blanched to remove as much of the smoke flavor as possible. Potatoes are ideally from northern Maine, Aroostook County, but if you can’t find them, use small yellow potatoes such as creamers. They need to be firm, not crumbly like Idaho or russet potatoes. Seafood was the picked meat from a whole lobster (discarding the tomalley), rock shrimp, medium scallops and cherrystone clams. None of this was ideal except for the excellent scallops – you want a lobster right out of the Penobscot, tiny coldwater Maine shrimp, and steamers or soft-shell clams rather than cherrystones.
The lobster bodies were simmered in water to make a stock, and the other seafood was cooked in a strainer in the same water. Meanwhile the blanched bacon was rendered and fried. One diced onion is added to the bacon frypan along with a half stick of butter, and fried until translucent. The potatoes were chopped into half-inch cubes and boiled until cooked but still firm. Lobster shells continued to simmer until close to suppertime, then the broth strained off along with the grit at the bottom, and reduced a bit. 2 cups milk and 2 cups light cream were then added slowly. The translucent onions, butter and blanched bacon are added to the milky broth, and simmered – the seafood goes in at the last minute, along with salt to taste. One eater preferred some fresh ground pepper in his bowl. Common crackers should be sprinkled on top, but since these no longer seem to be made, we used non-salted oyster crackers instead. The result was sublime, as you can see from the photos.