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A Down East
Holiday Chowder

By Nancy Harmon Jenkins

BOWDOINHAM, Me. - Sam Hayward, who is the chef and an owner of Fore Street in Portland, Me., is a Mainer by adoption, not birth. In fact, he grew up in Tennessee and Louisiana, and received his early professional training in New Orleans before settling here almost 30 years ago.

Mainers are famously intolerant of outsiders. Even after two or three generations, people are still said, with barely concealed condescension, to be from away, or, like the Bush tribe, just summer folk. But Mr. Hayward lives here comfortably, as if he came from a long line of Mainers, with deep and thoughtful ties to the land, the sea and their products. He is also sensitive to the unspoken culinary connections between Maine and the South, which come about largely because both areas were, until recently, deeply rural, accustomed to using old-fashioned country pantry foods like cornmeal and smoky cured pork, and lots of butter and cream in the kitchen.

He told me his story as he diced a slab of applewood-smoked bacon in his home kitchen just off Merrymeeting Bay, preparing what he calls Scotia chowder for his family. The recipe is based on something he and his wife, Jan, relished in Nova Scotia years ago. It is unusual because the lobsters are parboiled for just a few minutes, then shelled, and the deeply flavorful liquid inside the creatures makes the soup base.

"It's our Christmas chowder call it lobster stew," said Mr. Hayward, tossing the bacon into the bottom of his chowder pot with a healthy dollop of sweet butter. "We always have it on Christmas Eve, on New Year's Eve. It's the best use I've found for a winter lobster."

So lobsters have seasons?

"Definitely. In summer we get new shells, soft-shelled lobsters. In winter a lot of the lobsters have been pounded," meaning, he said, confined in lobster pounds rather than ranging free on the ocean floor. "They get tough, fibrous, ungenerous somehow. By the middle of November, when we can't get new shells anymore, we take them off the restaurant menu."

But winter lobsters are perfect, he said, for simmering in a family chowder. "I love doing this," he continued. "I feel as though I'm connecting with people who've been making chowder for a thousand years." Or maybe, he corrected himself, for a hundred years or so. The bacon, of course, isn't really authentic salt pork would be but it's awfully good.

He came to this coast one summer, Mr. Hayward said, almost on a dare, after a particularly gray winter in Ithaca, N.Y., where he had been working as a musician. With no experience cooking for crowds, he accepted a summer job on Appledore Island in the Gulf of Maine, preparing three meals a day for 120 faculty and students at a marine biology station. (Jan, a nurse, provided medical services for the group.)

"I'd go ashore once a week in an old Novie shrimper and we'd forage," he said. "It was challenging. The students were ravenous all the time. I had to be totally food-focused or the whole thing would fall apart." Mr. Hayward did the work for three seasons.

He turned his attention to potatoes. "You want mealy potatoes for chowder," he explained, advancing upon a big basket that was sitting on his slate-topped kitchen counter. Inside were russets and smoother-skinned varieties called Prince Harry and Elbe. "Cooking opens up the starches and lets them out into the liquid to give it richness and thickness," he said. "I'm going to use these russets." Like most of the produce served at Fore Street, and at his home, Mr. Hayward's potatoes all come from his friend Frank Gross's gardens in nearby Lisbon Falls.

What about flour for thickening?

"I don't care for it at all." He looked up with a quick smile. Flour in chowder is anathema in Maine.

Into the pot went the potatoes and a couple of diced leeks. But lobsters are the key. Six of them, live and aggressive, were placed on their backs in a couple of inches of rapidly boiling unsalted water. "They parcook faster," he explained, if they go in on their backs. And indeed the lobsters quickly stopped squirming and steamed quietly until the moment they began the color change from rich, rusty brown to bright red. That is when Mr. Hayward pulled them out and plunged them into a pot of cold water to chill them down rapidly. Then he broke the lobsters open in a sieve over a bowl, draining the liquid from them. He pulled off the claws and cracked them apart, broke the tails away from the bodies and drained them, then pulled the carapaces apart and eased out the coral, which is roe, and the tomalley, which is liver.

When all the lobsters had been broken up and drained, he pushed all that goo, as he called it, through the sieve with a wooden spoon, then dumped it into the chowder pot.

"Once the potatoes are done and the liquid is added," he said, "we're almost done cooking. At that point it's really about melding and blending flavors."

He cut the lobster meat, translucent, gelatinous, mottled pink in color, into chunks, and combined it with a lump of butter in a saucepan. Then he set the lobster over moderate heat to finish cooking before turning it into the chowder pot. After it had simmered for about 20 minutes, he added some frozen shoepeg corn and plenty of rich cream.

"I'd use corn we put up ourselves last summer but not everyone can get it," he said. "But this is rustic chow, anyway. I'm not too fastidious."

Recipe: Scotian Lobster Chowder


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