Dinner should be moist.
My wife and I and two friends went to one of our favorite eateries the other night (a fake picture of which is posted above) and, as fate would have it, we all ordered enchiladas with rice and refried beans. Long (too long) after some wine and a delicious appetizer of spicy shrimp, out came the four identical plates of enchiladas, rice and beans. We were about to dive in, but oddly enough we all simultaneously fell silent as we looked at our dinners. Everything looked, well, dryish. In fact, dry.
I tasted the refried beans, which had the appearance of caked mud under a blistering sun, and muttered two words under my breath. “Volcanic ash.”
The others asked me to repeat the phrase. “Volcanic ash,” I offered with a bit more oomph, eliciting a chuckle or two. In Hawaii the lava I was envisioning is called aa, the crunchy flaky kind, but here in our homey favorite restaurant it was a tragic condition for refried beans to be in.
I sampled the “rice.” I found it crispy enough to make cracking sounds in my teeth. Saharan rice! The others fiddled with their food, but it became obvious none of us was very impressed with this display of cruel desiccation, and soon enough one of us got up to alert the waitress that the refried beans, at the least, could use some expert attention and maybe a garden hose. What we surmised, being familiar with restaurant practices, was that the plates of food must have been baking under heat lamps long enough to dehydrate them into a state of mummification. And sadly, the main event, the enchiladas, weren’t much better. Crispy on the outside, but very much like dried laundry on the inside.
Since I launched the blog last December, every single food I’ve talked about has the same palate-appealing characteristic: moisture. Oysters are moist (try saying that a few times!). Welsh rarebit is exceptionally moist. Even classic French bread boules harbor a pleasing sense of lingering dewiness inside. Unless you’re talking about potato chips or Triscuits or nuts or things of that nature, food on a plate should be just a wee bit soggy.
So, not to belabor the point and pummel a particularly odd-sounding word to death, but if we’ve all finally accepted umami as an actual genuine “taste,” (along with salty, bitter, sweet, and sour) – first offered up by Professor Kikunae Ikeda more than 100 years ago as having real chemical legitimacy closely akin to monosodium glutamate – then I think it’s time we added a sixth component to “taste” that makes the tongue respond with pleasure and delight the way it never could to volcanic ash or dried laundry. So, yes, food needs to be damp.
(all photos by me…except the restaurant photo)
Littlenecks, cherrystones, whatever, they’re all Quahogs
Quahogs are one of my favorite things, especially as shown above – freshly harvested, not over-rinsed, briny, ice cold and served with lemon and cocktail sauce. But also baked with toppings, or in a brothy chowder with sauteed onions, potatoes, butter, and salt pork or bacon.
Some people think littleneck clams are their own species, but of course they’re just small quahogs – those that happen to be less than 2.5″ in diameter. Cherrystones are also smallish quahogs, running from 2.5 to 3″ in diameter. Any clam bigger than that finally gets its real name - quahog - or chowder clams (my parents called them “gaggers,” which never sat very well with me, especially while we were eating them). They’re all quahogs, they’re knee-deep in soft sand at low tide from Florida to Newfoundland, and I’ve hunted them most of my child-and-adult life (in summer) not with a rake but by wiggling my toes until I felt their large hard, rounded shells a few inches under the sand. This is where toes know what a rake can’t.
Surprise, the ocean quahog is the longest-lived non-colonial animal in the world (coral, for instance, is a colonial animal). In 2006, fisherman off Iceland found a quahog that was later determined to have started life in 1499. It was 507 years old and named “Ming” after the Chinese dynasty of 1499. I think it ended up in a chowder somewhere. I can’t imagine eating anything that old, no matter how delicious.
My grandmother served us quahog chowder when I was little, with clams considerably younger than Ming, and I picked up the baton sometime in my early 30s, as I recall, and finally got it right. This is the real old-timey brothy quahog chowder that you won’t find in any restaurant I’ve ever been to, and it’s buttery and salty and bristling with umami.
The trick to it is finding quahogs. They are around here, but not harvested so often. I’ll leave that up to you.
Grandma’s quahog chowder
You’ll need, for about 3 quarts of chowder (for 6-8 people):
- 30-40 large quahogs and their liquor
- 5-6 tbsps. butter
- 2 large onions, chopped
- 3 yellow potatoes, diced (about 3 cups)
- (fish or clam stock, if you need it)
- bacon or salt pork or both
- black pepper, cayenne pepper
- milk or Half and Half, to taste
Put the diced potatoes in a large saucepan with water, boil, and cook over medium heat for about 5 mins. or until the potatoes are soft. Drain the potatoes and put into a large stockpot. Now sauté the onions in about 2 tbsp. of butter until very lightly browned. Put these into the pot as well.
Fry up the bacon or salt pork, then drain.
Open the quahogs on a large cutting board. I use a strong knife and a small rock to pound the knife blade through the clam’s “mouth,” then twist the knife to pry the shells open. Be careful to save all (or most of) the clam liquor! Pour it off from the clam into a bowl. Chop the clam meats, then rinse them in a strainer to get rid of shell fragments or sand, and put the meats into the pot. Now, using cheesecloth or a fine strainer, strain the clam liquor into another bowl, or directly into the pot. You should get about a quart and a half of clam juice. If you don’t, add enough fish or clam stock to make up the difference. Finally, add the crumbled bacon or salt pork, and the remaining butter (about 3-4 tbsps.).
Gently heat the chowder till it’s very hot but not boiling, stirring occasionally. Lower the heat to sim, and add a little milk or Half and Half (I use a pint or less), and add the peppers to taste, and let sim for 10 minutes or so. Notice that the liquid in the chowder is at least 3/4 clam juice. That’s important! In fact, you can skip the milk altogether.
Now, as many cooks know, chowder is always better on the second or third day, and enjoys sitting idly in the fridge, stewing in its essences. And you’ll never guess! The best cooks who make this tell us, store the chowder in the fridge uncovered. Uncovered! That’s the only way to stabilize the flavors. One less cover to wash.
That’s it for now.