Corn and Mussel Chowder

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.

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CORN AND MUSSEL CHOWDER

Serves 4 as a main course; 6 as an appetizer

Ingredients:

  • 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

Directions:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

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Jody Notes:

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.

Go ahead, add your two cents – leave a comment!

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49 thoughts

  1. Lovely story and fantastic photos. They are getting better and better with every post. I have been getting more and more into cycling over the past couple of years and now enjoy a decent 60 to 80k on the weekend with shorter mountain sprints during the week (weather permitting of course). One would down a ship’s bucket of that chowder after one of those cycles!
    Best,
    Conor

    • It’s a great sport–and the PMC is a great cause. Remarkably people come from all over the US to volunteer. And there’s nothing like a 200 mile through the New England countryside with the police clearing the roads ahead of you and people applauding as you cycle by. Jody regularly does 60 – 80 miles on a weekend. Asthma keeps my rides shorter. Mountain sprints? My cap’s off to you. Ken

      • I started out with a tiny cycle of about 8 mikes and thought I was a hero. I now regularly do the 60 – 70 mile ones (usually a sportive for some good cause or other). I am involved with Cycle4Life. It raises funds for Temple Street Children’s Hospital here in Dublin and the annual cycle is a great day out. I love the mountain climbing. The weekend before last, I did a 50 mile with 3,300 feet of climbing. I slept that night!
        Best,
        C

  2. Hmmm. I never thought to add corn cobs to broth. Brilliant! Beautiful soup. We used to do hotter n hell rides in Texas for years but then I sold my road bike. I miss the rides. A little. We did MS 150’s, too.

    • A little. Ha! I have a brother who rides out of San Antonio. Last year the temperatures when he set off in the early evening was regularly around 102, 103. When he returned a couple of hours later, it would have dropped to the relatively cool 98. In similar circumstances I’d be doing indoor spin classes. Ken

  3. That may not be the most appetizing way to start out a post about soup, but entertaining nonetheless. Meanwhile, another new thing to try for me courtesy of your blog–not eating mussels of course, but making them at home! I like how this looks summery and light, even with (horrors!) a cup of cream. Congrats on the biking!

    • Thank you, Sara. It was a fabulous weekend. Patrick O’Brian was a treasure. I had the chance to meet him once at a book-signing–a tiny little man in 80s–and we spent ten minutes laughing about puns. Great writer of historical fiction. Ken

  4. Another great recipe that I will definitely try, would be especially good for this dreary, rainy Friday, maybe I’ll stop at the store on the way home and whip it up tonight! Loved the PMC pics, very proud of your whole team.

  5. Come on, really? This looks ridiculously delicious – again! Must you post such delectable dishes each and every week? I’m off to the market yet again to pick up the ingredients. Oh, and p.s., I’m gonna try a zucchini version of your sweet potato wontons, possibly with a parsley-walnut sauce. Remind me to not plant nine zucchini plants next summer.

    • Ah yes, the invasion of the zucchini plants. No one ever regretted an affair as much as they did planting too much (any) zucchini. Using them in wontons sounds great, especially with the sauce. I wish people could post photos in the reply box so we could see how it went. Good luck. Ken

  6. Beautiful post K&J, thank you. For a “getting a little long in the tooth” tome on chowder making, you might check John and Matt Thorne’s book “Serious Pig”, North Point Press, circa ’96. Wonderful assessment of the mentality and mendacity of chowder making. I am off to have my yearly artery flogging of fried clams, onion rings, Lobster roll and their ilk at either ‘George’s Surf & Turf’ in Mendon or ‘Scales’ in Millbury in a recently restored mill project. Just great photos Ken. Keep doing what you’re doing. Waiting for your BIG B&W book of nudes, ala Helmut Newton, hee hah.

    • Didn’t they used to have a food newsletter in the ancient preblogging days? I seem to recall a great piece about sourdough and brick ovens from one of them years ago. Jody doesn’t seem as enthusiastic about the nudes study as I for some reason. C’mon, hon, it’s art! Ken

  7. This chowder looks delicious. I love corn in just about anything. The mussels elevate it to super-star status. Your narrative is hilarious. Thanks for the literary reference and history lesson! The photos are stunning.

    • Thanks. Patrick O’Brian occupies a place of honor in my personal pantheon of literary lions. If you’re at all into historical novels with a dry sense of humor, give him a try. Ken

  8. Now this is a dish I can totally get behind…..when should I arrive for dinner? So happy that you had a beautiful weekend for the PMC, and that you all totally Rocked It!

      • Ha, ha, yes. Actually I like the version of the phrase about the British Navy that includes buggery, but I learned from Google that it wasn’t authentic. I just wanted to use those words in connection with a food blog. Just for the thrill of it. :) I’ve never read the books. I did watch the Master and Commander movie, but I thought the sound was really off (too much wave in the background) and I couldn’t understand half of what they said. Obviously I missed the joke about about the state of the food. Seriously… yes, we can get mussels at Whole Foods and fish stores. Not sure where they come from from or how long they traveled, but they are here. And now I know just how to use them.

  9. There’s so much to love about this pos but. as enjoyable as that first paragraph was to read, i doubt I’ll ever look at oyster crackers in the same way again. This would make a wonderful corn chowder in its own right but those mussels really put it over the top, Ken . I’ve already pinned it. This is one recipe I don’t want to lose, Thanks for sharing another of your wonderful recipes.

    • Thanks, John. Someday we’ll have to compare notes to see which of us has pinned more of the other’s recipes. :-) I’m currently in Barnstable on the Cape. Last night I ran into someone who had read the post and asked if would hurt to slip a few oysters into the chowder! Hey, smoke ’em if you got ’em is my attitude. The more the merrier. Ken

  10. Each time we’d step off the plane from Indonesia and arrive bleary-eyed at my gran’s house, she’d shove steaming bowls of chowder in front of us, and we would revive. It’s such a sacred dish that I haven’t dared to recreate it before now, but as the catholic chowder tent is large, I might just do it. Thanks for the nudge. (:

  11. Thanks for educating me on O’Brian. I’ve not read any of his work but do like a good seafaring tale, particularly if puns are involved.

    This recipe presents beautifully in photographs. I’m pinning it. Must make it before the summer comes to an end.

    • O’Brian is a treasure, Gwynne. Although his novels, especially the early ones, may be read as individual tales, the series itself is actually one long narrative about history–social and military–friendship and the minutia of late 18th-early 19th c. life, ranging from food, drink, sexual and social relations, honor, and the role of money. It really is quite extraordinary. And of course great puns. Thanks for the kind words on the photos. Ken

  12. On the heels of making and enjoying that sublime tomato/burrata salad, this. Imagine me, exhausted after a hard day’s work, briefly exhilarated after a stop at Whole Foods (aka Whole Paycheck), where I stocked up on things I had no idea I needed. I rejuvenated myself by chopping leeks and using a machete to divide corn cobs, in the company of my daughters, who unloaded the dishwasher, with One Direction playing in the background. The chowder did not disappoint. The experience of making and eating it gave me the brief illusion of “having it all,” though I could have done with a bit less of One Direction. Thank you, thank you. Can’t wait to see what you post on Friday.

    • Our son is temporarily resident en route from Chicago back to New York. Isn’t it amazing the music we’ll endure in order to get everyone moving around the kitchen together? Thanks. Ken

  13. Just to let you know your blog is looking absolutely sensational! Loving the new layout, with the customised full frame. Have clicked Follow and that has sent an email to Yahoo. I have to check these things.
    – A chowder I’ve yet to eat and or cook. Like a lot of American cuisine, especially Cajun, I’m intrigued by. So little time!

    • To paraphrase a motto from the late, lamented Gotham Book Mart in NYC: So many dishes, so little time. Thanks for the observations about the new theme. I think we’ve wrangled it under control. Ken

  14. this looks wonderful! i love chowder! it will start to get cool here where i live soon so i will have to give this one a try! beautiful pictures! love your blog so far, thanks for sharing!

  15. Took me a couple of weeks to get to this but I followed the recipe to the letter (yeah, quite unusual for me) and the result was spectacular! Did you use dry chipotle peppers or canned? I used dry and could have done with one rather than two for my crowd (me included).

    • Hello, Henry–We used the canned, whose effect is, I believe, a bit milder than the dried. I’m afraid chipotles are a bit on the unpredictable side and if you’re concerned about heat the best practice is to use less and then increase the quantity the next time. I’m glad you managed to still enjoy it. Ken

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