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The Chowder House Rules

Chef Matthew Jennings schools us in the art of New England clam chowder
Matt Jennings' Clam Chowder
Video & Photo: Dave Katz/Tasting Table 

"I know you New Yorkers like your tomato, but there's no tomato involved."

So says chef Matthew Jennings of Boston's Townsman with a laugh. He's telling us what's in—and, more importantly, what's not in—a proper New England clam chowder (see the recipe).

"We're definitely a cream-based chowder. Potatoes are a must," he says. "The chopped clams have to be as local as possible—we like to use littlenecks—and there's typically some sort of pork."

Although the rendition he's making for us is fairly traditional, at the restaurant, he serves chowder that has, yes, clams, but also squid and a local cream. It's what he does: takes New England classics like pork and beans and even lobster rolls and "reinterprets them with a modern twist."

"It's unfortunate that New England cuisine is pegged as having rich, heavy foods, because during the growing months, we're the antithesis of that," Jennings says. "That's not to say that classic New England chowder isn't very much a part of who we are. It came about as a way for fishermen and their families to celebrate items that were very inexpensive and provide sustenance."

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Jennings tells us this as he sweats onions, garlic and shallots, then adds fresh corn kernels cut off the cobs. ("September and October are the best time for corn in New England; it has a high sugar content and really rounds out the dish," he says.) In go some cream and water, as well as half a jalapeño for heat.

"The key to making a great chowder is not to rush it," Jennings says. "The worst thing you can do is scorch the cream, because you can never recover."

 

After his fragrant base reduces down, Jennings purées it, then adds the potatoes, two dozen clams that have already been steamed and chopped, and some fresh littleneck clams that just need a few minutes on the heat to open. After a sprinkling of bacon and fresh herbs, the chowder is ready to be served—preferably with some crusty bread for dipping.

"Sundays were a big day in my family," Jennings says. "My mom would make chowder, and it was always a big deal for us to sit down together and break bread and dunk it into the chowder. We liked to use the chowder as a base for our linguine and clam sauce, too, so you can get two meals out of it."

And we think that's wicked awesome.

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