We've got chowder on our minds -- and it's no wonder.
Last weekend marked the 32nd annual Clam Chowder Festival at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Monday was National Clam Chowder Day, and the past two weeks have seen a parade of intriguing fish stews and chowders ladled up on shows ranging from TV's "The Taste" to the web-only "Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen."
Clam chowder may be a Colonial-era tradition -- the first references to "chouder" date back to 1732 -- but the seafood stew has infinite flavor possibilities, and it's amazing to see how some modern chefs have reinterpreted the classic.
Clam chowder remains popular at dockside dives and swanky restaurants alike, straddling the line between down-home and upscale, whether it's filling a sourdough bread round on San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf or nestled in bowls at a retro boutique hotel near the Santa Cruz boardwalk.
That's because everyone loves it, says Brian Drosenos: "The richness of New England clam chowder -- it's a comfort food thing."
Creamy Boston- or New England-style chowder isn't the only one making waves, but it's easily the most popular, says Drosenos, executive chef at Aquarius, the restaurant at the Santa Cruz Dream Inn, which took second place at last year's Clam Chowder Festival.
There's more to a chowder than clams and cream, of course -- there's the bacon or salt pork, fresh herbs and, in the case of Aquarius, Madeira wine -- but it's important that those clams be top-notch, Drosenos says, not some "cheap processed clam that's chewy and gritty."
Good cream is important, too.
"If you're using a low-fat cream, it doesn't have the texture, the coating on your tongue that you're looking for," he says. "We make ours with a little roux to help thicken it, and you're adding butter into it, so of course it's going to be better."
Some people use cornstarch -- or generous handfuls of oyster crackers -- as a thickening agent. Others, such as Chuck Williams and Kristine Kidd, co-authors of "Williams-Sonoma Cooking at Home" (Weldon Owen, 2010), let the cream stand on its own.
Of course, New England is not the only player in the chowder arena. Manhattan, Rhode Island, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Florida have their own distinctive styles. You'll find salmon or oysters in the mix in parts of the Pacific Northwest. And San Francisco is famous for sourdough bowls.
Drosenos is actually a Manhattan clam chowder devotee.
"I'm also a Yankees fan, so Manhattan is closer to my heart," he says. "I'm a huge tomato fan, so anything with tomato in it. When I make it at home, I make red. But around here, everyone does New England. It sells better."
New wave chowder
Diners will have three chowders to choose from when San Francisco's Exploratorium opens in April on Pier 15. Chef Loretta Keller, who is heading the science museum's equally cutting-edge new restaurant and cafe with her partners at the newly founded Curiosity Catering, is taking chowder to new heights. It's partly a nod to business partner Ute Bowes, whose Ferry Plaza Seafood is famous for its Boston and Manhattan chowders.
At a sneak peek Exploratorium lunch recently, Keller served the two chowders in the same bowl, so guests could swirl them at will. It was a showstopper -- the vivid colors and flavors together created more than the sum of their parts.
"It just got me thinking about expanding the concept of clam chowder, elaborating and doing spins on it," she says.
Keller plans on offering a series of "riffs on clam chowder" at the Seismic Joint, the museum's soon-to-be cafe on the Embarcadero. First out of the gate: A Mexican-inspired take on chowder, with clams, avocado, farro, a touch of mole and plenty of bright, vibrant flavors -- and no cream.
"I was thinking to myself: What makes a chowder a chowder? How can I call this Mexican chowder?" Keller says. "But really, a chowder is a fish stew. That gives you license. Unlike the New England, which is relatively homogeneous, I really like the way the Mexican is more distinct -- the ingredients, textures, crunchy, soft, salty, sweet and rich."
Making mole is a major undertaking, she admits, but it freezes beautifully. Sneaking it into a dish adds "layers of complexity and depth of flavor," she says. "Mole is sort of like marriage. There's no easy way to do it. You've got to take your time, really enjoy the process -- or don't attempt it."
Think of it as Manhattan clam chowder's sexier Latin American cousin -- and the first in a long line of chowder riffs.