North Fork Chef: These chowders take the prize

JAY WEBSTER PHOTO Winner of this years Chowder contest Cliff's Elbow Room Chef Mark Gray being congratulated by head judge Chef John Ross.

Nothing is more notorious than that various sections of Eastern America come to blows over chowder. Tomatoes or milk is the crucial question, also caraway seeds and salt pork. New England is rent and torn over these dissenting practices, but Boston, Maine, and Connecticut are allied against Manhattan or Long Island chowders, while Rhode Island teeters in between.

“Long Island Seafood Cookbook” by George Frederick (1939)

The story of chowder begins in the ancient fishing villages of Brittany, where “faire la chaudiere” meant to supply the cauldron. Salt pork was browned and covered with layers of fish, potatoes and hard tack. Water was added and the pot simmered all day. It was a communal effort by the local fishermen. As these Breton fishermen migrated to Newfoundland, then Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and finally New England, chaudiere became chowder. Clams often replaced fish because they were plentiful and easy to harvest. Milk and onions were added along the way.

The North Fork, caught between New England and New York, has been consuming chowder for a long time. While we don’t have a distinctive chowder that is universally considered “North Fork chowder,” we have a tradition of making thick, rich soups containing chunks of readily available local food. Bacon (or salt pork) and potatoes seem to always be present and we seem to lean a little more toward Manhattan than New England chowder, but the delicious hard shell clams, fish, corn and other vegetables and shellfish always seem to find their way into the local concoctions. Chowder is one of those dishes that can define a region and the personality of its people.

The chowder contest at the Greenport Maritime Festival is a stage for local chefs to present their interpretations of North Fork chowder. This year, the 10 chefs and their supporting restaurants all made excellent chowders that contained a whole catalog of local ingredients for the public to enjoy. Their efforts help define a tradition that may take another 25 years to solidify.

Here are some recipes from those chefs that I have adapted to smaller quantities for home use:

Long Island Chowder
Chef Mark Gray
First place
Cliff’s Elbow Room, Jamesport
Shuck 1 dozen fresh chowder clams, reserving the juice and separating the meats. Let the sand settle out of the juice and chop the clams, setting them aside.

Coarsely chop 1 Spanish onion, 2 stalks of celery, 3 carrots, 1 green pepper and 4 medium-size potatoes. Run these vegetables through the coarse blade of a meat grinder and set aside. (You can substitute a food processor and carefully pulse to avoid over-chopping.)

Pour the clam juice (it should be about 2 cups) and 2 cups water into a soup pot along with the ground vegetables. Bring to a boil and season with 1 teaspoon sea salt, 1 teaspoon black pepper, 2 bay leaves and 1 teaspoon thyme. After simmering for 30 minutes, add 1 can chopped tomatoes (15 ounces) and a teaspoon of sugar. Add the chopped clams and continue to simmer for another 30 minutes.

Cut 4 strips of bacon into squares and place them in a shallow pan with 1/2 cup water. Bring to a boil and cook until water is evaporated. Run the poached bacon through the meat grinder and add to the chowder along with 1/4 cup chopped parsley. Check for seasoning and serve with oyster crackers.

Late Summer Corn and
Butternut Squash Chowder
with Smoked Bluefish
Chef Tom Schaudel
Second place
A Lure, Southold
Heat 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in a soup pot. Add 2 strips of diced bacon and cook until browned. Add 1/4 cup diced onion, 1/4 cup diced celery, 1/2 cup diced butternut squash, 1/4 cup each of red and yellow pepper, and the kernels from 2 ears of fresh corn. Cook until vegetables are soft and add 1/4 cup of flour to form a roux. Cook for 5 minutes and add 2 quarts chicken broth (or corn stock). Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Add 1/2 cup diced purple potatoes (or fingerlings), 1/4 cup basil chiffonade (finely sliced), 2 tablespoons fresh thyme and 1 cup diced smoked bluefish. Simmer until potatoes are tender and add 1 cup heavy cream.
Season to taste with coarse salt and pepper and garnish with chopped cilantro (or micro cilantro).

Provencal Chowder
Chef Guy Peuch
Third place
Stonewalls, Riverhead
Heat a soup pot and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add 1 chopped Spanish onion and 1 chopped leek (white part). Sauté until soft and add 4 fresh plum tomatoes, quartered; 2 cloves garlic, crushed; half of an orange peel; and half a head of sliced fennel. Add to this 1 pint fish stock (available at local fish markets) and 1 cup water. Season with 2 bay leaves, 1 teaspoon sea salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain into a bowl, pressing all of the juices from the vegetables. Add a pinch of saffron and set aside.

Purchase 1 dozen littleneck clams, 1/2 pound each of monkfish and striped bass, and 1/2 pound of sea scallops. Slice the scallops in half and cut the fish into bite-sized pieces.

Meanwhile, dice half a head of fennel, 1 zucchini, 1 yellow squash and 2 medium potatoes. Strip the kernels from 3 ears of corn.

Before serving, place the rinsed clams in the broth and cook, covered, until they open. Remove and set aside. Add the potatoes and fennel and cook until just tender before adding the zucchini, squash and corn. Finally, add the fish and scallops and simmer until just cooked, about 5 minutes.

Garnish with the steamed clams and chopped parsley. Serve with toasted croutons.