Thick creamy and very, very tasty, chowder is a thick stew-like soup, substantial and satisfying but, made properly, not heavy or stodgy. Anyone who has been to New England or San Francisco in the USA will be familiar with clam chowder, sometimes served in a bowl fashioned from a hollowed-out loaf toasted in a hot oven to render it soup-proof. The east and west coasts of the States are united in their love of this famous dish while vying for bragging rights over who makes the best. Indeed, chowder has nautical origins as these two rival cities suggest, originating as a seafood stew thickened with hardtack (a rigid cracker made of flour and water), though no one can say for certain where the name comes from. Here I've assumed that hardtack isn't sitting in everybody's kitchens these days (though maybe it is making a resurgence with yeast hard to come by at the moment!). Guessing that seafood won't be easy to acquire either I have opted for a land-lubbers' version combining bacon, potatoes, onions and sweetcorn to pleasing effect.
Serves 2 heartily but double up the ingredients to serve more.
- 4 rashers smoked streaky bacon or pancetta, cut into lardons (smoked ham or ham hock will do nicely too)
- 1 tbsp vegetable or olive oil
- Knob of butter
- 1 onion, chopped
- A large potato, peeled and diced (not too chunkily though, think of your spoon size for eating!)
- 2 tsp plain flour
- 200 ml milk
- 300 ml chicken or vegetable stock
- 160g sweetcorn niblets (fresh, frozen or canned – defrosted if you use the frozen and drained if you use the canned)
- 2 tbsp chives, finely chopped (or parsley)
- 50 ml cream (double cream if you have it, single is fine, or use crème fraîche or cream cheese or mascarpone – or leave it out altogether)
- Pinch of white pepper
- Heat a large saucepan over a moderate heat, add the oil and fry the bacon lardons. If you would prefer it, you can leave out the oil if the bacon gives off enough fat of its own. Fry until the bacon is just starting to crisp.
- Add the chopped onions to the pan and turn the heat down. Add the butter. Cook until the onions have started to soften, stirring occasionally. This will take about 10 minutes.
- Add the flour and stir well. Cook the flour, bacon and onion mixture for a couple of minutes to cook out the flour.
- Add the diced potato and stir. Cook for a few more minutes over a low heat, stirring regularly.
- Add the milk and stir over the low heat for a few minutes until starting to thicken a little.
- Add the white pepper and stir.
- Add the stock. Bring everything to a simmer and cook until the potato is tender. This shouldn't take long if the dice isn't too big. Add the cream.
- Add the sweetcorn and bring back to a simmer until the corn is heated through, about three or four minutes. Check for seasoning and if you like add a little salt but be aware that the bacon could be quite salty already.
Stir in the chopped chives and serve.
A lovely addition to this, if you have some, is smoked haddock, flaked into the soup at the same time as the milk and stock, and you could use that instead of bacon (don't fry the haddock at the start, add it flaked at the same time as the sweetcorn). Prawns won't hurt either and you could very easily turn it into a seafood chowder with smoked salmon or other meaty fish. Vegetarians could omit the bacon and add more vegetables of their choice (celery is good) or some smoked tofu, of a pinch of smoked paprika. This dish is pretty versatile. If you want more potato or bacon or sweetcorn in there, go for it and make it even chunkier, and you don't have to use smoked bacon if you'd prefer not to. This is satisfying enough not to need bread, but I certainly wouldn't blame you for wanting to mop up any creamy juices left in the bowl.
I wouldn't normally think of soup with wine unless it is chunky one that makes more of a meal of things, and this chowder fits that bill nicely. Ideally, this is white wine territory, though as with many soups a glass of chilled fino sherry works surprisingly well, particularly with the smoky elements, or fishy ones if you go down that coastal path.
A wine style that works beautifully with this chowder is an oaked white, say a chardonnay from Burgundy or the new world, or a Rioja blanco, which will marry deliciously with the smoky and creamy elements and the sweetness of the corn. A white Bordeaux that includes a touch of semillon and/or some barrel time will also do the trick, as will a white Rhône or similar from the Languedoc, while the gently oaked whites of Portugal shouldn't be overlooked. If oaked wine isn't your bag consider something fresh but peachy, like an albariño from Galicia, Rhône grapes or blends from wherever they hail in the world, or a friendly pinot gris from Alsace that will have a little fat and fullness to match the creamy, smoky flavours with aplomb.
Personally, I'm not crazy about red wine with this dish, but If you are a fiend for red head for fruity and light or the medium-bodied end of the spectrum, like a Beaujolais up to Villages status or Valpolicella. A young, inexpensive Rioja with judicious oak might just work with the smoky bacon elements too but go for youth and inexperience here.