As a proud Rhode Islander, you probably think I’d be all about the Rhode Island style clam chowder. That’s the kind that is made with a clear broth and with quahogs, a bigger (local) clam. You’d be wrong however. I’m a traditionalist and I go with New England style – the creamier the better. I want my oyster crackers to float on top of the soup, too light to sink into the thick, creamy chowder. That’s when it’s best for me.
The folks at Eater.com, one of my favorite websites, recently published an article called “A Brief History of Clam Chowder” written by Cynthia Correa. In it, they identified seven different styles of chowder ranging from the most popular creamy clam chowder of New England to the tomato based version associated with Manhattan and even a spicy South-of-the-Border influenced chowder from Cabo. Correa explains that a chowder is, “a soup or stew of seafood (as clams or fish) usually made with milk or tomatoes, salt pork, onions, and other vegetables. The definition of the soup varies depending what part of the country you’re in, but most include clams, potatoes, onions, and some form of pork. The biggest different between them is the broth.” The New England style, with it’s thick, creamy milk-based broth, is the most popular and most famous (just ask Mayor Quimby). This chowder became popular in New England in the 1700’s and was undoubtedly a recipe that has origins from the the French or British settlers who adapted the local cuisine to make this hardy and warming soup. It was on the original menu in 1836 at the Union Oyster House in Boston, the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the country, and it is even mentioned in the classic tale Moby Dick. Herman Melville loved his chowda.
The best chowder I ever had was at our wedding and was made by famous local chef Mark Rodrigues. Really, it was that good. We had it again recently at a party for his parents where the chowder was served and it was just as good as I had remembered. He makes his own clam broth which is the key to it all, so he says. But I think there is more magic in his chowder there than he’s letting on. Nonetheless, people who take their chowder very seriously, like we do, get pretty judgy when it comes to chowders and Mark’s still stands the test of time.
Like I said, chowder connoisseurs can be judgy and are always trying to point out their favorites. It’s not for bragging rights, but more to share a treasure in the chowder eating world. My thought for how to celebrate today was to find out who serves the best chowder in Newport and sample some. Coincidentally, because it was National Clam Chowder Day, the local blog What’s Up Newp published an online poll for the best chowder in Newport. A very non-scientific poll, but it delivered some answers for me. Out of the roughly 500 people who participated, One Bellevue at the Viking Hotel came in first with the Black Pearl a close second and the Brick Alley Pub in third. I had heard people go crazy for the Black Pearl chowder, so that was no surprise. The Viking is always a leader in these kind of polls too, so that was not an upset by any means. I’m sure both chowders are great. But as the they day marched on, my desire to leave the comforts of home and battle Newport traffic on a warm Saturday afternoon was waning. I know thats sounds like a copout, but sometimes you have to follow your gut. Without the energy and the funds to go restaurant hopping, it’s not a very fun task. I decided to stay local. I’ll try those chowders when it’s more sunny and have more energy.
I went with my old standby: Clement’s Market. They have a soup section there that offers hot soups ready to go. You never know what the options will be, so I took a chance that one of their six soups would be chowder. It was. Hot and creamy New England Clam Chowder. I ladled out a quart to take home. The soups at Clements are made my Blount which is a local soup company based out of Warren, RI and Fall River, MA. Clements sells the soup prepared hot but you can also by a frozen bag of the soup which you just take home, drop in some boiling water and have restaurant quality soup when it’s ready. Blount make a Thanksgiving Everyday Soup which is a creamy turkey and rice soup with good warming spices. It’s been one of our favorites, and now we hear that Becky and family are huge fans too. I get excited every time I see it as an option in the soup circle at Clements. In fact, I may even give an audible exclamation of joy when I see it there as an option.
The Blount family were originally in the shellfish business in the 1880’s. After 1938, when the infamous hurricane almost destroyed the oyster industry in Narragansett Bay, company founder F. Nelson Blount introduced the bay quahog as a source of protein and he was able to focus his efforts in that direction and turn his business into an empire. He started selling chopped clams to soup giants nationwide including the legendary Campbell’s brand. Eventually Blount would start making their own foods. Today they are no longer in the shellfish business but are having quite a successful go in the soup biz. They are the largest producer of clam chowder in New England and they produce soups for home and restaurants under the Blount, Legal Sea Foods and Panera Bread brands. I had no idea. I just knew their chowder was really good. On a small side note, F. Nelson Blount purchased the narrow gauge Edaville Railroad in the 1950’s, so he is also behind that little gem of an amusement place for kids of all ages (and middle-aged, out of work bloggers).
I brought the chowder home and served it up to Lola and it was the perfect dinner. Nice and creamy. Good chunks of potatoes. Hint of bacon in the background and of course good clam portions and flavor (but not too much). That’s the delicate balance of a good clam chowder – if it starts tasting too clammy, I’m out. But not this chowder. This chowder was perfect.
As if this day needed more to celebrate, today was also National Chocolate Covered Nut Day. I was debating on whether or not I should celebrate this knowing that the chowder would be enough, but it was kind of my back-up plan. Lola was at a shower for most of the afternoon on Saturday, and currently, thanks to a dead battery, we are down to one vehicle. That left me without transportation for the day which meant that I might not be able to get out and go to Newport for chowder or even to the store for ingredients to make my own. So if that didn’t work out, I knew I had to come up with a back up plan. Chocolate covered nuts were perfect because they were super easy to make. I had found a recipe from a website called Thesisterscafe.com. I had never heard of this site before; I had just done a search for chocolate covered nut recipes and they came up on the second or third page. However I just realized that the site is from five sisters who started the blog as a way to share their recipes with each other. I can’t seem to get away from this five sister thing. I bet you a Mellow family five sister blog would be quite a read as well. I’ll see if I can get that going.
This recipe called for three type of chocolate chips: milk chocolate, semi-sweet and white. You melted the three together and then you scooped some mixed nuts into the melted chocolate. When the nuts were all covered in chocolate, you scooped them out in spoonfuls so you have little clusters. You line them up on parchment paper and just let them cool and set. I didn’t have any nuts in the house, so I walked up the hill to the Dollar General. That place is becoming quite convenient for these types of emergencies. I also knew exactly where to find the nuts, so I may becoming a regular there. I got what I needed, walked back home and got the chocolate melting right away. It really only took about fifteen minutes from start to finish to make these – so simple.
When they were set, I took them off the sheet pan and packed them in some Tupperware. I naturally gave us each a couple of clusters to sample as well. This was a hit. I was a little skeptical about the combo of the three chocolates, but they really worked well together. Plus the salt from the nuts was an added bonus. Mixed nuts were a great choice too, because you were getting different nut flavors in every bite: peanuts, almonds, walnuts. Really, really good. I imagine if I used non-dollar store quality nuts, it would be even better. Lola thought they were great too, even giving me an “Oh My God!” which always means she’s a fan. The five sisters steered me right.
What was kind of a lazy day turned out to be quite a celebration. On paper, I wouldn’t say clam chowder and chocolate covered nuts are a great combo, however they made for a great day today. I like any day that has me eating a bowl of clam chowder. It’s one of my favorites. It’s making me miss the summer. Nights when you stop somewhere along the beach for a nice cup of chowder and watch the sunset. You are a little sun-drenched. Little tired from a day at the beach. But you’re happy and content and the chowder never tastes better. Those days are coming. I can almost taste them. When those days come, I’ll have my spoon and oyster crackers ready. Maybe I’ll bring some chocolate covered nuts too.
Next Up: National Pistachio Day