Build a better summer chowder: Olympia contest opens beyond cream soups

Olympia Chefs Dan Moore and Tim Smiedala share a unified weapon in their clam chowder arsenal — bacon.

Well, two — if you include the clams.

Smiedala, chef at South Bay Pub & Eatery, uses chopped bacon as a smoky counterpoint to the briny thump of his soup. Moore, executive chef of Firecreek Grill, infuses bacon at the base of his cream-based chowder.

The chefs took top honors with their restaurant chowders at last year’s Port of Olympia Boatswap and Chowder Challenge. This year, they’ll be competing against 10 other Olympia restaurants for bragging rights to the South Sound’s best bowl of chowder.

The Chowder Challenge takes place from 12:30-2 p.m. Saturday at Swantown Marina (see box on C5 for details on the challenge and boatswap).

With competition looming, the two chefs weren’t about to share the chowder recipes they’ll compete with, but I did have one question. As spring brings more of those (hopefully) warm nights: How do you build a better summer chowder?

Here, last year’s chowder winning chefs offer tips and tricks, plus a recipe for a smoked corn chowder.

Seasonal vegetables: Smiedala advised using spring and summer vegetables at the peak of their flavor for cream-based chowders. That means asparagus right now, but try corn later in the summer. His recipe for smoked corn chowder is included on page C5.

Fresh herbs: Moore advised capturing summer flavor with the use of fresh herbs straight from the garden. Add fresh herbs at the end of cooking, or you’ll lose the flavor. He suggested wrapping the herbs in cheesecloth.

Bacon fat is your friend: Save all your drippings. A few teaspoons in the roux of a chowder adds a phenomenal layer of flavor.

Cut the fat: Skip the bacon fat and halve the butter in roux-based chowders to reduce calories and fat. Another trick is to make the chowder using a light chicken broth, then finish with a splash of cream rather than build a chowder entirely from cream.

Texture: “My focus is on simple,” said Moore. “To me, a chowder isn’t watery. I like a nice, hearty, thick soup and make sure it’s seasoned well.”

Hot weather soup: “You’re not necessarily looking for a heavy cream base,” said Moore of the August chowders versus May chowders. He prefers chowders with an acidic base for truly hot weather. “A summer chowder wouldn’t be that heavy cream base, more of a tomato base one with fresh herbs and nice seafood. Think cioppinos.”

Foundation: Moore recommended always starting a chowder with a mirepoix — use equal amounts of chopped carrots, celery and onions.


Port of Olympia Boatswap & Chowder Challenge

When: Boatswap from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday. Chowder tasting is from 12:30-2 p.m.

Where: Swantown Marina, 1022 Marine Drive N.E., Olympia

Events: A chowder cook-off among local chefs, plus an equipment swap and sale for boaters. Family entertainment for all.

Cost: Free admission, but bring $5 for a chowder entry token and souvenir chowder mug

Vote: Use the token to vote for your favorite chowder.

History: This chowder festival and boat swap took place from 1996-2007, but a construction project put the competition on hiatus in 2008. Last year was the first year the competition returned.

Competing restaurants: Falls Terrace Restaurant; Fatso’s Bar & Grill; Firecreek Grill; Fish Tale Brewpub; Lady of the Lake Public House; Little Creek Casino; Lucky Eagle Casino; Paprika Catering; Pints & Quarts Westside; Red Lion Hotel; South Bay Pub & Eatery and The Sidewalk Café

Chowder specifics: In past years, chowders were limited to cream-based clam chowders. This year’s competition opens the field to any kind of chowder.

2013 winners

Dan Moore: Executive chef of Firecreek Grill at Capitol City Golf Club. 2013 winner of the People’s Choice Award. He was assisted by kitchen manager Frederick Fowler.

Tim Smiedala: Head chef and general manager at South Bay Pub and Eatery. 2013 winner of the Chef’s Choice Award. Smiedala said he seeks the freshest ingredients in his chowder, avoiding leftovers and canned foods.

Smoked Corn Chowder

Yield: Serves 8

4 tablespoons butter

4 strips chopped raw bacon

1 tablespoon garlic, minced

1/4 cup white wine

1 red onion, finely chopped

1 red pepper, finely chopped

2 carrots, shredded

4 celery stalks, finely chopped

2 Yukon Gold potatoes, 1/4 inch diced and par boiled

6 ears smoked corn (use your backyard grill)

1/4 - 1/2 cup flour

3 cups chicken or vegetable stock

3 cups half and half

1 bay leaf

2 sprigs fresh thyme

Salt and pepper

In a large soup pot, melt butter with chopped bacon and garlic. Cook on medium high heat until bacon fat is rendered and beginning to brown. Add white wine and cook for 1-2 minutes while deglazing pot and scraping all of the goodies off the bottom.

Add onions, peppers, carrots and celery and cook until the celery begins to soften. Add just enough flour to soak up all of the liquid, but don’t create too thick of a paste. It is important to continue stirring to incorporate the roux.

Cook flour mixture until it starts to turn a light brown and will start to smell like a baked pie crust. Add half and half, and stock. Reduce heat to low and continue to stir, using the back of a spoon against the side of your pot to help break up the roux.

Cut the corn from the cobs and add to pot with potatoes, bay leaf, thyme and salt and pepper to taste.

Simmer and stir frequently until potatoes are soft and chowder thickens.

Discard bay leaf and thyme sprigs. Serve with warm bread to make a meal of it.

Source: Tim Smiedala, head chef and general manager at South Bay Pub and Eatery