Ricky Moore wants to change perceptions of what chowder can be.
"Everybody's reference point is that chowder is creamy and thick," explains Moore, the chef and proprietor of Durham's Saltbox Seafood Joint. "I just take the essence of what the seafood is and enhance it. There's no reference point at all."
To wit, he's made Indian-inspired chowders, some with bouillabaisse and others with curry. But there are two maxims for the dish—the chowder must be "chock-full of seafood," he says, and the star of the dish needs to stand tall.
That is quite literally true for Moore's current offering: clam and tomato chowder. When I lifted off the lid after a recent visit, I found myself staring at four top-neck clams with their thick, healthy, heavy shells popped open to show off the seafood inside. They sat high above the dish's colorful mixture of broth, vegetables and spices. That first impression was instantly assuring, a testament to the thoughtfulness of Moore's dishes.
"I started with the shell because I want you to know that they're fresh," Moore explains.
He begins with a sofrito, or paste, made by pureeing celery, shrimp, peppers, garlic, leeks, parsley and other spices, and allows it to dry. Moore then fries the mixture in hot oil. Once it's nearly caramelized, he adds the clams, which open under the heat. The fried paste coats the clams before Moore pours white wine and crushed tomatoes into the pot, which he brings to a simmer. He finishes off the dish with chunks of celery, fennel and onion.
"A lot of times when I do a chowder, I stay away from any additional fillers," says Moore. "I just want people to taste the seafood."
Moore gets his clams from a trusted source in the eastern Carolinas. Whatever it has available is what he'll work with, so his clam and tomato chowder may not be here to stay.
"It's always whatever I have," says Moore. "I may not have some ingredient on hand, so I have to riff on it. I just call them freestyle chowders.
Eat This is a recurring column about great new dishes and drinks in the Triangle. Had something you loved? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Chowder rules"