There’s Boston – a creamy white potato-based chowder, and Manhattan – a red tomato-based chowder. Now, there’s a new alternative: Bajan Clam Chowder. Instead of potatoes, we’re using the more flavorful Boniato root – a tropical member of the sweet potato family that tastes like roasted chestnuts. We’re also using other tropical flavors that might make some of us think about vacationing in Barbados for the winter.
I’ve taken a number of shortcuts with this recipe, primarily because I don’t have the time to or resources make chicken broth or coconut milk, so I’ll name specific brands of some products I used to make this recipe. Please read the directions first because there are several options that may or may not use all the ingredients and some unique tools. Let’s get started!
In Georgia, we can get boniato from the local Kroger and Publix. You may need to check more than one store because not all stores in the same chain carry it. Some stores may put Boniato in with the refrigerated roots like radishes and carrots, but they should be more properly displayed with their cousins the yam and sweet potato. You never see sweet potatos stored with carrots because they’ll rot in the cold. The same is true with Boniato, so hopefully you’ll see them stored near the potatos and sweet potatoes or with other tropical roots. Boniato is difficult to store because most of us don’t have a fifty-five-degree root cellar, so it’s best to cook them the day you get them and store the cooked, diced boniato in your fridge until you’re ready to make soup. Boniato has a red skin and white flesh inside. There may be some dark streaks. That’s okay. If the boniato is soft or even mushy at the store, it’s already bad. Cut out any flesh that looks brown and woody or skin that is green and moldy. This is fungus. If there is a lot of this, you may have a crummy boniato. Like I said, it’s a little difficult to store, but the flavor makes it worth the effort.
Both stores also carry the Hokan brand coconut milk in our area. I use this brand because it’s 90 calories for the same size serving even though it’s not a ‘lite’ brand. It’s also a little less expensive in our area.
I get Lemon Grass from the local Asian food store – Fooks Foods. They are a great resource for unique edibles.
Cook your bacon. There are any number of ways to do this. You want to
end up with crispy strips that you can crumble generously into the simmering soup
later. This can be done before hand if your cooking skills are still new, or while you continue to cook the other ingredients if you’re experienced. Good bacon texture is key to this soup, so if you’re attention is easily called away, it’s best to do this first and get it out of the way.
Peel and dice four medium boniato roots into half-inch squares. Steam them just until soft. Set them aside to cool while you finish cooking the other ingredients.
Wash and dice four celery stalks and the heart. (I call the remaining tiny stalks and leaves at the center of the head of celery the ‘heart’. It’s usually about six to eight inches tall from the base. Others may use different terms.) I use all the leaves from the heart to add bitterness. Bitter cuts salt, and vice versa. The clams and chicken broth we’re using mean we won’t be adding any extra salt to this recipe.
Dice one and one half onion.
Clean and slice the white mushrooms into medium-thin mushroom silhouettes.
Carefully cut the enoki and beech mushrooms from their base. These will not be diced, but left mostly whole for texture and color.
Fry all the mushrooms while the boniato starts steaming with a little butter. I usually cover them for a little while, forcing them to steam a little as the water from the white mushrooms condenses into the frying pan. Once the water has evaporated and the butter can do it’s trick, you’ll start to see them frying to a nice golden brown.
Depending on how quickly you finish frying your mushrooms, you can set these aside too and start cooking the celery and onions together. Press the garlic into the celery and onions as they cook. You’ll want to cook these until the onions are glassy. They don’t have to be brown. Set all these cooked ingredients aside.
The boniato will probably be cool enough to weigh by the time these are finished stir frying. Measure two and a half pounds into an eight quart pot.
Before opening the cans of coconut milk, shake them well until you hear the liquid sloshing around inside. When it’s stored at a low room temperature, it tends to get somewhat solid. Shaking it up before you open the can helps it to pour more easily. Use some of your chicken broth to ‘rinse’ remaining coconut milk from each can into your pot of boniato.
At this point, you have a choice – you can either use a total of one quart of chicken broth and four cans of clams (measuring the broth liquid separate from the clams) and some extra water to make up the additional quart of fluid, or you may omit the clams and use two quarts of chicken broth alone. Adding all three measures may make the chowder too salty for some people. The goal is to end up with two quarts of fluid plus the fluid from two cans of coconut milk as a base for your diced boniato.
Stir in the mushrooms, celery, onions and crumbled bacon as you bring the pot to a simmer. Make sure the pot at no point comes to a rolling boil. You won’t break it if it does boil since it’s not dairy, but the texture is nicer if it never boils. Add the frozen leeks when it has come to simmering temperature.
I like my chowder on the peppery side with regards to black pepper. The amount I’ve suggested may be too much for your taste, so if you aren’t sure, consider adding half a teaspoon at first. Add a quarter teaspoon more during continued simmer time until it reaches your preferred pepperiness.*
Cut up the lemon grass into very thin slices and put it into a baseball sized tea-ball. I got mine at the local Asian market. I like to cut it into thin slices to get more flavor from the lemon grass, but it’s tough to eat, so it’s better to steep the lemon grass slices inside a ball in the chowder. Alternatively, cut into four-inch stalks and beat them a little with a tenderizer. Then bundle them together with string and throw them in the pot to be retrieved after the chowder is finished simmering.
This chowder can be ready to serve from start to finish in about four hours, but it really does taste better if you can let it simmer at very low heat for at least six hours and then cool it, put it in the fridge and serve reheated portions the next day.
The culmination of flavors is somewhat reminiscent of a Boston Clam chowder, but with a lighter, more tropical flair. There is probably nobody in Barbados who makes anything similar, but for some reason it reminds me of the flavors from a vacation I spent there once. If anything can remind you of warmth in the winter, this chowder will. I imagine other sea foods could be introduced as well, like conch, scallops or mussels. I chose the name ‘Bajan’ because it is tropical and alliterates well with the word ‘Boston’.
* There are two kinds of ‘pepper’ in the English language – Red pepper and black pepper. Red pepper usually refers to the plant genus ‘Capsicum’ and includes peppers like chili, jalapeno, cayenne and other very hot flavors. This genus is in the nightshade family along with tobacco, tomatoes and potatoes. Not many people know that paprika is also a capsicum – it’s just mild, like a red bell pepper.
Black pepper refers to plant genus ‘Piper’ which includes the pepper corn a small hard fruit in various colors from white to green to red to black.
At no point should you subsitute black pepper in this recipe with a chili, jalapeno, or cayenne style pepper. Nor
should you use white pepper corns. Black peppercorns – ground by you – are the preferred ingredient. To my mind, too many people rely on the nightshade family of
peppers as a crowd pleaser when there are so many other options. Step
out of the box and consider a recipe that has no nightshades, you might
be surprised to find flavors you’ve been missing.