Monday, September 17, 2012

second nature



Portsmouth, NH

My father-in-law, Robert, is one of the best intuitive cooks I know. He lives alone, on the edge of a cliff above the Bay of Fundy. His kitchen is spare, with only a few tools and basic staples, and no cookbooks that I've noticed. But he has the basics on hand, and knows how to use them. Primarily, he knows what's going to be good, when, and doesn't bother if it's not. And he knows that good ingredients don't need much done to them. What comes out of his kitchen, and what he makes in mine, is always perfectly done.

Robert loves to fish. He bought my boys - his grandsons - fishing poles and tackle boxes for their birthdays a few years ago, then took them fishing. Both boys caught a tiny perch. Robert managed to fillet those fish that were about the size of my palm. Abbott read somewhere that you can cook fish in pancake batter, so being the pancake lover he is, he wanted his fish cooked that way. Robert helped him make a batter, and fried up those little fish such that we all had a bite. Probably, that experience will go down as Abbott's happiest fish-eating memory.

Robert is also one of the best storytellers I've heard in action. It's probably what makes him a good fisherman, or vice-versa. He loves a good restaurant meal, and will recount the details of a particular piece of pie in the same way he'll tell a fishing story. Long ago, I treated him to a meal of halibut cheeks, and I still hear about them from time to time. They've become legendary.

Last summer, he took us clamming when we visited him in Nova Scotia. It was my first time, and one of the highlights of my week. There was a distinct satisfaction in squishing around the mud flats, and in the surety there is in the digging. It's akin to blackberry picking when faced with a bush of luscious ripe ones - the juice is running down your hands, and it's nearly impossible to stop. The meal we made of our efforts lingers in my memory. Robert has spent most of his life in Maine and Nova Scotia, and cooking clams is second nature for him. His chowder is one for your recipe box. We made it recently, as we're starting to turn toward fall.


Robert's Clam Chowder

"The key I find to a good chowder is simplicity - basically, milk or cream, fish or clams or lobster, each alone, not mixed; potato and onion."

5 dozen small clams, such as manila or littleneck, well scrubbed
2 cups water
1 large onion, diced
1 tablespoon butter
1 large potato, peeled and diced
one piece of salt pork, approximately 1/4" thick x 3/4" wide x 3" long
2 cups heavy cream
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
butter, paprika and parsley, for garnish

Combine the clams and water in a medium sized stockpot, cover, and bring to a boil. Cook until the clams open, about five minutes. Discard any that don't open. Remove the meat, and coarsely chop it. Strain the water through a fine mesh sieve until all the sand is out. Set aside.

Dice the salt pork into 1/4 inch cubes. Sauté it in the stock pot over medium heat until some of the fat has rendered, about 3 minutes. Add the onion and butter and cook until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Put the potato and clam broth into the sauce pan with the salt pork and onion, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Stir in the clams and cream, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook just until heated through. Do not boil, or the cream will separate and the clams will toughen.

"When dishing it up, add a touch of butter and paprika and a little chopped parsley."

Yield: 4 - 6 servings


6 comments:

Jillian said...

Love you! And tell my sweet Abbott that I love pancakes, too!

Tabatha said...

You have a beautiful blog! I love your photos and your commentary :-)

likeschocolate said...

Nothing like a good clam chowder.

Denise | Chez Danisse said...

What a cool guy. I like the specificity of his simplicity in "fish or clams or lobster, each alone, not mixed"

Ariel said...

This story made me cry. It is clear how fond you are of this person. I love hearing about what makes him unique and special to you and your family. Inspiring. Really.
~A

KPiep said...

I envy his cooking skills!