Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®

February 2003
© 2003 by Bret S. Beall

Bret's Mom's Potato Soup/Chowder

Yep, I'm a real chowda-head! I love a bowl of hearty chowder with some crusty bread for lunch or dinner, or sometimes even breakfast. It's perfect any time of year, but especially during autumn, winter and spring (and especially in February, which is National Potato Lovers Month). It's a simple two-dish meal that can include all kinds of healthy ingredients and palate-pleasing flavors, and which can be frozen for convenient use in the future. This is the basic soup/chowder recipe that I use as a stepping stone to a variety of more exotic recipes (see variations below). It is an adaptation of a recipe that I inherited from my mother when I first set up housekeeping.

Place cubed potatoes in a large cooking pot (about one gallon capacity), cover with water, and add 1 t salt, 10-15 grinds of pepper, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil and simmer until potatoes are soft, and most of the water has cooked off.

Meanwhile, heat the butter or olive oil in a small cooking pot or skillet over medium heat, add the onions, ½ t salt and 5 to 10 grinds of pepper, and cook until soft (caramelizing the onions will add additional flavor, if desired). When the onions are soft, create a roux by stirring the flour into the onions and cooking for an additional 2 to 3 minutes, stirring often and breaking up lumps.

Add about ½ c of the milk to the onions and stir until the mixture is smooth; add to the cooked potatoes in their pot; add another ½ c milk to the onion pot, stirring and scraping to remove any remaining bits of onion and roux; add to potatoes. Continue adding milk to the potato/onion mixture until your soup/chowder has reached the desired consistency.

Serve immediately, or refrigerate up to 48 hours, or freeze up to one year.

Variations Of Bret's Mom's Potato Soup/Chowder

1. Vichyssoise: Replace the two onions with 2 to 3 leeks, finely minced (1/4"). Follow all procedures as above. Chill and serve (note: you may puree this soup in a blender, or put it through a food mill, for a smoother texture). Alternatively, serve hot, warm or at room temperature!

2. New England Clam Chowder: Instead of butter or olive oil, fry ¼ lb salt pork (traditional) or bacon (for a smoky alternative), cut into ¼" to 3/8" dice, until meat is crispy and all of the fat is rendered; remove the meat and drain on a paper towel; reserve until end. Add onions to the pork fat, and continue as for potato soup. After the potatoes are cooked, drain the liquid from two (6 oz.) cans of minced clams into the potatoes (this will be about 1 c of liquid). Use milk or cream or fish stock as the remaining liquid (I usually just add milk when using the clam liquor). Bring the chowder to a simmer; cook until desired consistency is achieved. Add the clams at the last moment, heating for about 1 minute; serve immediately with the fried salt pork or bacon crumbled on top, and with oyster crackers or some good bread on the side.

3. Portuguese clam chowder: instead of bacon or salt pork, sauté ¼ to ½ lb flavorful sausage (Portuguese linguica is ideal, but you can use Mexican chorizo, Spanish chorizo, kielbasa, or your favorite; crumble if raw, or use ¼" to 3/8" dice if firm) until browned; some of these sausages are very lean, so you may have to add some olive oil to help them brown; also, some of these sausages produce a very gluey fat (kielbasa in particular), which you will want to discard, and just sauté the onions in olive oil in a fresh pan. Otherwise, follow the recipe for New England Clam Chowder, except that the cooked sausage should be added to the potatoes at the same time as the onions, along with 3 cups of stemmed and shredded/chopped greens (about ½ lb of kale, chard, beet tops, spinach, etc.). Add remaining liquid (clam liquor and milk), bring to a simmer, and cook until the greens are wilted and the flavors have melded. This recipe plays on the classic Portuguese combination of sausage and clams, often served with greens. If you want to make the classic Portuguese dish Caldo Verde, replace the milk/cream with water or chicken stock, and eliminate the flour (ie, do not create a roux) and clams (or leave them in for your own version of Caldo Verde!); the sausage is optional in the traditional version (but really delicious!).

4. Corn Chowder: follow the basic recipe for Potato Soup, but add up to 1 or 2 cans of whole corn kernels (drained; about 2 to 4 c, if you are using fresh corn) at the same time as the milk. You may have to add up to 1 t more salt, and certainly 10 or more additional grinds of black pepper, and maybe 1 t of your favorite chile powder (optional). Some terrific variations of this Corn Chowder include: Lobster-Thyme Chowder: after the milk has been added, add 1 t dried thyme and ½ lb (about 2 c) of fresh lobster meat or lobster-flavored surimi, cut into ½" dice; bring to a simmer for 15 minutes and serve. Another variation: Corn-Cheddar Chowder: follow the basic recipe for Corn Chowder, but add 1 c dry white wine to the potatoes just prior to adding the roux; after the milk and corn have been added and warmed, add two cups finely grated sharp cheddar cheese (about ¼ lb), and stir constantly until the cheese has melted into the milky soup. The addition of 1 t of your favorite chile powder is almost mandatory.

5. Other ideas: replace some or all of the potatoes with other starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes, turnips, parsnips, parsley root, celery root green plantain, etc.). Replace the onions with scallions; consider adding garlic. Add 3 c of finely diced celery for an unexpectedly tasty chowder. Any other herbs can be added according to personal taste. Cooked (as in leftover) and diced chicken or meat can be added to warm in the soup for a heartier chowder. Pieces (1") of raw fish/seafood of almost any type (halibut, flounder, cod, salmon, shrimp, crab, surimi, etc.) can be added to the hot chowder to cook for 15 minutes prior to serving. The milk/cream can be replaced by water or stock in some cases, but this can sometimes be tricky.

With this repertoire of chowders, you can take advantage of sales on milk, potatoes and other potential chowder ingredients (canned clams, cheese, corn, etc.) to cut food costs. You can stock your freezer with hearty and healthy meals that make great carry-to-work lunches or quick-to-prepare dinners when you get home from a long day at the office.