Chris Charland’s Chowder:
Federal Jack’s chef shares his recipe for a sure respite from the winter weather
A couple of years ago, in my infinite wisdom, I asked Kennebunkport Brewing Company if I could brew with them for a day in February. I had done this back in the 1990’s for an article I wrote about the experience. This time it was February, oh, did I mention that? And even lovely Kennebunkport in southern Maine was a frigid eight degrees. “Dress in layers” was head brewer Mike Haley’s email instruction to me. Well, my layers were feeble and I froze to death until the mashing-in got into full swing, the steam eventually warming the brewery a tad. I should have dressed in seven layers of thick down ski clothes, but I didn’t. Instead, I clutched my cup of coffee and hoped the steaming liquid would warm me. It didn’t. All I could think about while I loaded the grain into the auger, weighed out hops and watched Mike Haley clean out the mash tun (hey, my hands were frozen) was lunch, when I could repair upstairs to Federal Jack’s Brewpub and have a bowl of hot-as-Hades chowder.
We all have that in common in our cold Maine winters. And the one dish we can make and enjoy all winter long, for both body and soul, is a hot, buttery, creamy chowder, thought to come from the French word for cauldron, chaudiere. It’s quick to put together, and gets better if you let it “age” for a few hours or even up to a few days. But if you think you’re going to keel over dead if you endure one more snowstorm, or bombogenesis, as that horrific storm in 2015 was labeled, you are welcome to eat it as soon as you make it. You have my permission.
When the leaves came down this autumn, and the balmy days turned cold, I thought about Fed Jack’s chowder once more. I asked chef Chris Charland if he would share his recipe and he did. No precious Top Chef or Chopped secret-keeping here. Just a simple and easy-but-foolproof recipe from Federal Jack’s chef of over eighteen years, who began as a prep cook and worked his way through the ranks to become head chef.
I asked Chris to tell me something about himself and was delighted to hear that he grew up and still lives in his home town of Biddeford. His cooking background? He attended Southern Maine Community College (SMCC) and was mentored by chef Christian Gordon. But even earlier, as a boy, Chris credits his grandmother with teaching him how to make his way around the kitchen.
“My grandparents had a garden so they did a lot of pickling. My grandmother also taught me how to make a great Thanksgiving dinner, blueberry pies, her delicious southern no-bake cookies (my favorite recipe from her) and what I call “Memere soup,” which is her tomato soup with noodles.”
Of his favorite dishes to make at Federal Jack’s, Chris says, “I enjoy working with local farmers and purveyors. Our weekly special menu is dedicated to doing just that. I take their products and give them my twist by incorporating our beers (made right below the restaurant and the freshest beer possible) into them. I sometimes use the beer itself in a braising liquid, the malts used in beer- making to make crusts for fish and meat and hops to make sauces.”
What do you bring to holiday dinners? “I usually make most of the meal such as turkey or prime rib, ham and some sides like fresh herb and olive oil smashed potatoes, maple roasted butternut squash with sage, or desserts.”
When he has a day off, Chris loves spending time with his two boys, Caiden, age 6 and Carson, 2. “We play sports or build ninja warrior courses for Caiden and go for adventure walks with my youngest.”
CHRIS CHARLAND’S CLAM CHOWDER, from FEDERAL JACK’S BREWPUB
This is a recipe that doesn’t impose amounts for the ingredients. If you have never made chowder before, you can consult another recipe that does give them. I suggest you look at the list and decide what you like and just throw it in there. I prefer chunky chowders and add lots of rough chopped onions and potatoes. For clams, canned are fine. You might luck out if you live near a fish store, like Harbor Fish in Portland, that sells them by the quart. But the supermarket clams from Maine make a delicious “chaudiere.”
Here is our ingredient list
Whole unsalted butter
Small diced white onions
Small diced celery
Medium diced white Maine potatoes
Cracked black pepper
Fresh thyme [Kate’s note: I use a few pinches of dried when I don’t have fresh]
Chopped clams and juice
Clam stock [Kate’s note: Julia Child used bottled clam juice!]
Melt butter in a heavy pot or pan.
Add onions and celery and seasonings and cook until onions are translucent.
Add clam stock and bring to boil.
Add potatoes and cream. [Kate’s note: I leave the milk/cream out until everything else is done, just to avoid separating.]
Bring to boil and reduce to simmer.
Cook until potatoes are fork tender.
Add chopped clams and simmer until clams are cooked.
In a separate mixing bowl, mix water and cornstarch to make a slurry.
Bring chowder to boil and slowly whisk in slurry.
Bring to boil until desired thickness.
Serve with oyster cracker and a pint of Export Ale.
Kate Cone is the author of What’s Brewing in New England, a guide to craft breweries and brewpubs. (Down East Books, 2016 and 1997). She loves to cook just about anything and chowder saves her life every winter. She lives in Waterville, Maine with her husband, Patrick Brancaccio.