Clam & fennel chowder

Mother Nature must like Chicago in the world of winter, so the idea of a big bowl of chowder remains a great weeknight option even as we approach the middle of April

The foundation of any good soup is a mire poix (onions, carrots and celery) that is well-cooked to bring out the flavors which in turn flavors the soup

In my version of Clam Chowder, fennel bulb replaces the celery, but less you think “Mr. Celery” has gone mad, fresh celery leaves are included in the saute and the chowder is garnished with the same

If you don’t have rendered bacon fat on hand, cook 3 slices to get 4 tablespoons of fat; then, if desired, garnish the chowder with the diced bacon

Ingredients
4 tablespoons rendered bacon fat
2 cups diced onion
2 cups diced fennel bulb
1/2 cup diced carrot
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons House salt
Black peppercorns in a pepper mill
1/3 cup fresh celery leaves, plus additional for garnishing
4 cups peeled and diced boiling potatoes
1 quart clam juice, warmed in a saucepan
8 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup flour
2 cups Half & Half
3 cups cleaned and trimmed chowder clams, about the same dice as the potatoes
Pinch of cayenne, optional

Method
Heat the bacon fat in a large Dutch oven until shimmering. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally until the onions are translucent. Add the fennel, carrot, thyme, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the simmering clam juice and celery leaves and stir to incorporate. Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the carrots are tender, 10 to 12 minutes

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan, sprinkle in the flour and whisk to combine and cook for 3 minutes. Add a ladle-full of the stock to the roux (the butter-flour mixture) and whisk to incorporate. Add the roux to the soup and stir to incorporate and simmer until the chowder has thickened, 2 minutes

Add the Half & Half and the clams (and cayenne if using), stir to incorporate and simmer for 2 minutes. Taste for salt, freshly ground black pepper and cayenne

Ladle chowder into bowls and garnish with fresh celery leaves

Project Recipe

Project Recipe is all about wanting to spend some time in the kitchen carefully and lovingly pulling a meal together. These aren’t really week-night meals (though to contradict myself I’m starting you off with one that can be made during the week that will produce a dinner that will look like it took all day). You are committed to following the recipe and the rules, having all of the ingredients on hand and ready to take on the task! Bravo! Let’s get started

Slow cooker fennel pork chops with onion-mushroom sauce

I said I wouldn’t start off with anything too scary, and what’s a better time saver than your slow cooker? It took me some time to warm up to mine which I bought specifically to keep my chili for a chili recipe nice and warm. Well, since then, I have found it a real time-saver and especially good for cooking tougher cuts of proteins … Having said that …

This is a foolproof go-to dish … if you can find the ‘correct’ type of pork chops. I am not sure why they are so difficult to find, but when I DO find them, I stock up!

What you are looking for is bone-in blade or shoulder chops about 1/2 pound each. Not to discourage you too much, but good luck! They are definitely worth looking out for the next time you are at the market … and I would say that is the way to go with this dish. If you find them when you are at the store pick them up, then head back to the produce section and grab the vegetables and plan on making this another day for dinner that same night

Most of this dish is hands-off: you brine the chops for 4 hours and slow cook them for 6 hours. The onion-mushroom sauce comes together in a skillet just in time to serve with the chops

Ingredients

For the brine
1 gallon room temperature water
1 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup orange juice
1 bay leaf
1 star anise

For the pork chops
4 bone-in blade or shoulder pork chops, about 1 inch thick and 1/2 lb in weight each (sirloin chops will work too)
House salt
Black peppercorns in a pepper mill
4 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed, bulbs cut into quarters, freshly picked fronds saved for plating
1 Honeycrisp apple, cut into sixths
1 small onion, peeled and quartered
1 bay leaf
1 star anise
1 teaspoon MSG or 2 teaspoons House salt
1/2 cup liquid (white wine, chicken stock, hard cider …)

For the mushroom-onion sauce
16 ounce sliced button mushrooms
1 large white onion, cut into 1/4 inch slices 1 x 1 1/2 inches
House salt
Black peppercorns in a pepper mill
3 tablespoons butter
1 branch fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
Pinch of dry mustard
1/2 cup heavy cream

Method
Combine the ingredients for the brine in a large bowl or 5 gallon Ziploc baggie set inside a bowl and stir until the salt and the brown sugar have dissolved. Add the pork chops and ensure they are fully submerged. Cover the bowl or seal the bag and refrigerate 4 hours

Remove the chops from the brine and discard the brine. Pat dry and season all over with House salt and freshly milled black pepper, set aside

Tumble the garlic, fennel quarters, sliced apple and quartered onion into an even layer in the bottom of a slow cooker. Arrange the chops atop the vegetables without stacking (slightly overlapping is fine) Add the bay leaf, star anise and MSG. Pour the chosen liquid over the ingredients. Cover the slow cooker, set to low and cook for 6 hours (see Note)

40 minutes before the chops are done, prepare the mushroom-onion sauce

Heat a large saute pan over medium high heat for 1 minute. Add the butter and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan as the butter melts. When the foam from the butter has subsided, add the mushrooms and a pinch of salt. Stir to gloss the mushrooms with the butter; cook, stirring occasionally 5 minutes. Scatter in the onion and another pinch of salt. Stir to gloss with the butter-mushrooms. Add the thyme, bay leave and dry mustard and cook, stirring constantly until fragrant, 30 seconds. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent and beginning to brown around the edges. Pull the pan off heat and swirl in the cream, stir to incorporate. Taste for salt and freshly ground black pepper. Keep sauce warm, covered, over low heat

For final platting and presentation
Remove the pork chops and fennel bulb from the slow cooker to a large clean plate and cover with foil

Pour the liquid and vegetables that remain in the slow cooker through a strainer set over a fat separator. Press on the solids to extract flavor and juices. Discard solids. Let the cooking juices settle until the fat rises to the top

Whisk 1/4 cup to 1/3 cup of the de-fatted cooking juices into the mushroom-onion sauce (Save any leftover de-fatted juices up to 2 days in the refrigerator or 1 month in the freezer if desired)

Plate the pork chops among dinner plates with a few pieces of fennel bulb

Dress Fennel chops with mushroom-onion sauce and garnish with fennel fronds

Note: The ‘correct’ chops will be tender and falling off the bone after 6 hours. If you use another type of chop, check for doneness at 2 hours and continue to slow-cook, checking every hour thereafter for tenderness

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