An open love letter to James Beard

I have a new lover.  And his name is James Beard.  Unfortunately, he is dead.

No, I am not a necrophiliac.  James Beard is my kitchen lover, the man who has spoken to my soul by cooking the American-style food I had feared I’d never find (outside spendy restaurants) then writing about it in a way I’ve always wanted to read and write.   He has such love for his food that it is almost a physical joy to page through his works, with just a slight aroma of pretension that only makes him endearing, because it stays within the bounds of good humor and a consistent invitation into his realm of delicious simplicity.

I had heard his name before, usually from the mouths of Top Chefs as they grappled for supremacy in the kitchen, toting up awards and culinary battle scars.  But I didn’t fully understand his impact on the American cooking scene until I committed a minor Christmas infraction by buying his book (on huge sale!), Beard on Food, while I was supposed to be shopping for others.  It’s a major no no in my family to buy yourself something once December has gotten underway.   I do not apologize.  For that day, my heart was won by this simple phrase:

“…green beans boiled until just bitey-tender…”

Oh, I was lost.  Immediately I knew exactly what he meant.  I didn’t need to worry about terminology, or the feeling that the cook-author would be judging me from their stained pages while I tried to fumble a meal together that would be somewhat sophisticated but I still wanted to eat by the end – James Beard published an actual column with the word bitey-tender.  I wanted to be him.  I wanted to be with him, in his kitchen, sauteeing something with a glass of Beaujolais in hand (subject of another article and one of my favorite wines).  When I read that he considered bacon to be “the friendliest meat” I knew that this was a relationship that was meant to last.

He was quite the big man in food.  The American Dean of Cooking, first to have a cooking show, introduced Julia Child around when she first arrived, etc, etc.  But to me, he will be the charming gastronome who sits on my shelf, waiting patiently until I want to bring him down to my kitchen have a comfortable, peaceful night of hearty food and affection.

So thank you, James, for coming into my life.  This giant pot of clam chowder is for you.

James Beard Clam Chowder

With little tweaks from my mother, who makes a mean chowder herself. I’ve rewritten his recipe so that the ingredients come first for ease in shopping and cupboard checking.

1 1/2 c chopped or ground clams – reserve both meat and the juice, whether you use fresh or canned (I used canned for both ease and price; I believe it was 3 of those flat cans I associate with fish and seafood)

3 slices of salt pork or thickly sliced smoked bacon, cut into small shreds

1 finely chopped medium onion

2 medium potatoes, thinly sliced

3 c light cream

Salt and pepper to taste

Mom’s additions:

2 or 3 stalks of celery, chopped finely

1 or 2 Tbsp flour

Let's get ready to rock this kitchen, James.

Fry the bacon shreds until ‘quite crisp’ then remove and drain on paper towels.  In the happy pan full of fat, add the chopped onion (and celery) over medium heat and brown lightly.  Cook the sliced potatoes in 2 cups of boiling salted until just tender.

Here again I will interject with my mother’s suggestion, that I agree with.  We have been trained to like a thick chowder, and this is not one of them.  So, add a tablespoon or two of flour to your onion and celery and stir it completely in, breaking any lumps that form.  Cook for a few minutes to get the raw flour taste to leave town and then set aside.  This roux will thicken your soup up easily later on.   I had added some cornstarch at the very end instead, which worked fine, except I am perpetually terrified at making sure that I cook the cornstarch long enough because I loathe its flavor otherwise.  Too many underbaked fruit pies.  It also simply doesn’t work as well as the roux.

Now we just chill with a glass of wine and wait for all the flavors to do their thing

Almost finished, just have to add cream and wait for it to get bubbly and thick and delicious!

Add the bacon, onion (and celery), clam liquor, and pepper to taste to the pot of potatoes.  Taste to see if it needs salt – the clam juice will be rather salty if you started with canned, so definitely taste first!  And remember that we aren’t done cooking the soup, so the salt will intensify a little more all by itself.

Simmer for 5 minutes, then add the 3 cups of light cream (or milk) and bring to a boil.  Correct the seasoning (I added some Adobo, a teensy bit of garlic, and lots of good pepper), add the ground or chopped clams, and just heat through.

Serve, enjoy, and thank my lover for the delicious soup.  I suggest thick slabs of sourdough toast with a scraping of butter melted into its crags for dipping or levering soup into your mouth.  Ever so civilized.

I always have to eat clam chowder out of those bowls. It's a weird childhood association. They once had Tupperware lids, apparently.


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Hey, I'm Desa. I've been bouncing between the Pacific Northwest and Sevilla, Spain in the last few years and from tiny apartment to tiny apartment. I cook mainly for one, which means some potentially boring meals, but here I'll be sharing the food that excites me. Feel free to offer suggestions, commiseration, or desires. And thanks for coming by!


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