In his brilliant maritime novels set during the Napoleonic wars the English writer Patrick O’Brian was ruthlessly accurate about the handling of square-rigged sailing ships and the social relations in the British navy. In order to keep readers from feeling completely adrift O’Brian, whom the NYT Book Review dubbed “Jane Austen at sea,” often had his sea-wise characters explain details of shipboard life to landlubbers who had wandered into the story. Those new to cuisine afloat soon learned, for example, that chowder and the dreaded “portable soup”* were thickened with hardtack lest the liquid slosh out of the bowl and onto the diner. Hardtack, sailors then cheerfully pointed out, was infested with worms, nicknamed “bargemen,” after their resemblance atop the crackers in the soup, to pilots steering captain’s barges from one side of the bowl to the other. In MASTER AND COMMANDER, O’Brian has a character contemplate his soup with its infested crackers and then observe, “Don’t you know that in the Navy one must always choose the lesser of two weevils. Oh ha, ha, ha, ha!”
You’re either on board with this kind of humor or you’re not. If you’re not, you can console yourself with today’s post, Corn and Mussel Chowder. Oh ha, ha, ha, ha!
Chowder has a way of provoking endless arguments about its origins, variations, proper ingredients, etc. so if I say that traditionally New England chowder is built on a sautéd dice of salt pork and thickened with crackers I know that somewhere someone is going to get incensed and fire off an indignant “What about _______ and ________??!!” email. Please don’t. We’re taking a small-c catholic approach here. Our chowder tent is large. It embraces multitudes, including your version without salt pork or crackers. As a matter of fact, since we wanted to lighten up the traditional chowder a bit for summer, this version doesn’t either. No salt pork, no crackers. But there is cream, a rarity for us. I had to search all the way back to last fall’s Goat’s Milk Panna Cotta to find a Garum Factory recipe with cream. And we also include tomatoes with our cream, an unholy alliance in New England if there ever were one.
There’s also another rationale. This is the one time of the year when you can get great corn and tomatoes, and we didn’t want anything messing with those flavors except the mussels. Not even weevils. Enjoy. Ken
*A kind bouillon reduced to rocklike consistency then restored months or even years later at sea. “I thought it was luke-warm glue, but it goes down quite well if you don’t breathe.” Patrick O’Brian, from THE FORTUNES OF WAR.
CORN AND MUSSEL CHOWDER
Serves 4 as a main course; 6 as an appetizer
- 3 ears of corn, husked
- 2 large leeks, white and light green parts
- 1 stalk celery
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 chipotle peppers, dried or canned, if using canned, rinse
- ½ teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 8 ounces waxy potatoes, cut into ½-inch dice
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons chopped garlic (about 6 medium cloves)
- 2 pounds cleaned mussels, scrubbed and debearded
- 1 ½ cups white wine
- 1 tablespoon loosely packed fresh thyme leaves stripped from stem, unchopped–save the stems
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 cup peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes, about 8 ounces
- ¼ cup chopped parsley–save the stems
- Use a sharp knife to strip the corn kernels from the cobs. Set the kernels aside. Run the back side of your knife down the cobs. You will have a corn puree. Add that to the kernels. Cut each cob into 4 pieces.
- Cut the whites of the leeks into ½-inch dice. You should have about 2 cups. Slice the green part of the leeks crosswise until you have about a cup of thick coins. Swirl the dice and coins, separately, several times in cold water to remove any grit. It’s fine if the coins apart.
- Trim off the top and bottom of the celery stalk and set aside. Peel the remaining stalk, then chop into ½-inch dice. You should have about 1 cup.
- Put the cobs into a pot, along with the leek coins, the end trimmings of celery, the bay leaves, chipotle peppers and crushed fennel seed. Add 4 cups water or enough to just barely cover the cobs. Add the stems of the thyme and parsley if you saved them. Season with salt and pepper, bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer and cook for 35 minutes. Strain into a clean pot. You should have 2 cups. Remove the chipotles from the strainer, put into a bowl, and mash with the back of a fork.
- Add the potatoes to the strained broth, bring back to a boil and simmer 7 minutes or until just tender. Remove the pot from the heat and allow the potatoes to cool in the liquid. If they are already quite soft, strain and cool separately.
- Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the diced leeks, the diced celery and the garlic. Season with salt and pepper, cover and cook 3 minutes to soften the vegetables. Remove the cover and continue cooking until they just start to color. Add the corn kernels, mussels, wine, thyme leaves and the mashed chipotles. Cover and cook until the mussels just open, 3 – 5 minutes. Discard any that don’t open. Transfer the mussels to a rimmed sheet pan. Remove the mussels from their shells and discard the shells. Remove any remaining beards, but leave any of the corn mixture clinging to the mussels alone. Set the mussels aside.
- Add the broth with the potatoes to the pan used to cook the mussels. Add the cream and tomatoes and simmer everything for 4 minutes. Add the mussels and parsley continue simmering just long enough to heat through.
We didn’t include instructions on how to peel tomatoes in the recipe itself, but you can follow along in the photos. Begin by cutting a shallow cross in the bottom of the tomato you wish to peel. Plunge the tomato into boiling water for 10 seconds, then transfer it immediately to a bowl of ice water. The goal is too loosen the skin, not cook the tomato. Corners of the skin will sometimes curl back at the cross, but not always. In either event, the skin should come away easily.
You can serve the chowder immediately, but we found it’s better to let it rest, if for only an hour. It allows all the flavors to meld and mingle. If you absolutely can’t make chowder without salt pork or bacon, omit the chipotle or the combined flavors will overwhelm the corn and tomatoes. Render diced salt pork or bacon in the before cooking the vegetables, and then eliminate the olive oil.
While making this, I had a Proustian moment. My first job as a line cook, 30 years ago, was at Season’s in the Bostonian Hotel, under chefs Lydia Shire and Gordon Hamersley. One of the dishes on my station was classic French steamed mussels. I started with butter, sweated garlic and shallots, added mussels, white wine and thyme, steamed them open, reduced the juices, added heavy cream, reduced it again, and then, because we could in those days, added another tablespoon or so of butter and parsley. We served them with seemingly simple but exceedingly troublesome souffléd potatoes. It was a great dish.
Click anywhere in the gallery to see a photo.
Jody, Meghan, Jacki and Eliza – part of Team Rialto-Trade after crossing the finish line at the PanMass Challenge in Provincetown. Thank you to everyone who contributed.
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