The Wonder Of Store-Bought Crackers

I have a deep affinity for crackers.  Not gourmet varieties, or even homemade, but good old plain Jane everyday crackers, be it Captain’s wafers, or saltines, and especially any kind that comes two-to-a-pack.  

I don’t think anyone needs a reason to like crackers  but my fondness, I am certain, begins with my childhood memory of inexpensive family restaurants and sit down pizza joints that bring cracker baskets to the table instead of bread.   I love the cracker basket and who in their right mind doesn’t?  They hold something for everyone after all.  Remember those crunchy breadsticky thingys, the sesame rounds, or the oblong townhouse crackers shaped like flattened capsules all wrapped up, by twos,  in cellophane.

Wandering along my merry way as we do in life,  I eat crackers.  I eat crackers without much thought.  I eat Club crackers wrapped in thinly sliced bacon and then baked, I learn it is okay to drink a martini with saltines topped with pickled bologna and American cheese because they are a match made in heaven,  I will never forget having Georgia cracker salad and realizing it is nothing more than a tomato, mayo, whitebread sandwich on steroids, and my favorite, I use all kinds of crushed crackers as croutons for my salad.  To this day every time I walk past a stick of butter I can’t help but want to drag a saltine down the length of the stick before popping it into my mouth, the perforations at the edges of the cracker leaving the soft butter to look like a perfectly raked zen garden.

It’s at culinary school though that I recognize fully the cracker’s utilitarianism, that they are more than appetizers but in turn they are the mother of necessity used for so many creations.   In a pinch I have used saltines to bind force meat, used ground crackers for breading fish instead of panko bread crumbs, or as a binder in green tomato casserole, and for that matter in meatloaf and crab cakes too.  I never would have imagined polenta made from matzo but the Union Square Cafe did and even published the recipe in their cookbook.  I have even used them in a recipe for a Sardinian type of lasagna, which calls for crackers in place of traditional noodles.

I have always underestimated the power of the cracker because for the most part I always think of them as nothing more than a tasteless foil for other flavors, which is not true.  They are more than that.  The cracker can add creaminess when combined with wet ingredients or a needed crunch when exposed to dry heat and they absorb the flavor and aroma of anything they touch.

Crackers are friendly even if they live a life of the nondescript and even though we don’t always know why we like them we do.  The next time I buy a box of saltines I am going to remember there is so much more to the box than simply crushing a handful over my bowl of chicken noodle soup.

New England Clam Chowder

For the crackers

  • 5cups oyster crackers
  • 1tablespoon Old Bay Seasoning
  • A two finger pinch fine sea salt
  • 2tablespoons vegetable oil
For the soup

  • 2eight oz. bottles Bar Harbor clam juice
  • 2six oz. cans Bar Harbor clams, chop them if they are whole, juice drained and reserved
  • 4ounces bacon, diced
  • 1tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 2cups yellow onion, peeled and small dice
  • 1cup celery, washed, trimmed and small dice
  • 1tablespoon garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1/8teaspoon fennel seed, crushed
  • 1 1/2teaspoons dried thyme
  • 2dried bay leaves
  • 2tablespoons all purpose flour (optional, depends on if you want thick chowder or not)
  • 2cups yukon gold potatoes, peeled and 1/2 inch dice
  • 16ounces 1/2 & 1/2
  • Kosher salt and fresh ground white pepper
  • 1tablespoon chives, minced
  • 1tablespoon flat leaf parsley, minced
  1. For the crackers, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine the oil, seasoning and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the crackers and toss to coat them well with the seasoned oil. Spread then out on a baking sheet and bake them for 10 minutes or until they start to take on a little golden color. Remove them from the oven and let cool.
  2. Place a 3 1/2 quart heavy bottomed saucepan over medium heat and add the bacon. Let the bacon render its fat (you should have about two tablespoons of fat in the pan) and saute it until it becomes crispy, not crunchy, and starts to brown.
  3. Add the butter, onions and celery. Saute the vegetables until they are tender but do not brown them. Add the garlic, thyme and fennel. Saute until the spices become fragrant, not even a minute.
  4. If you aren’t using the flour add the clam juice and move on to the next step. If you want thicker chowder add the flour and stir it around letting it absorb the fat. Once the flour starts to smell the slightest bit nutty add the clam juice and the reserved clam juice. It is important to cook the flour taste out of the flour so be patient and make sure you cook it long enough.
  5. Add the half and half. Bring the liquid to a boil and add the potatoes. Bring it back to a boil and then reduce the heat to the lowest simmer setting your stove has. Taste the soup to see how salty the clam juice is, adjust the seasoning by adding more salt if necessary. Add a few grinds of white pepper. Add the clams, stir then cover the pot and let it simmer for 30 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked through.
  6. Turn off the heat and let the chowder sit, covered, for one hour to let the flavors meld.
  7. Before serving add the parsley and chives. Adjust the seasoning and reheat the chowder till hot. Serve.

5 Comments

  1. Saltines with butter kept me sane (and fed) during my first term of college. My first dormitory diner was catfish and hushpuppies. A month later it was all over… the catfish had given way to fish sticks. And so my saltines-with-butter phase began.

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  2. I have met my kindred Brother in Crackers. I just went to my pantry. I have 5 boxes of different varieties in there. Old Bay on crackers?? Genius!! But you must tell, what is pickled bologna? – Kat

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  3. I have the same memories of the cracker basket and butter, sweet nostalgia, rare dinners in restaurants with my parents. Also, my precious Mother would give me saltines and a little coke when I was sick and that’s what I still reach for these days when I’m under the weather. My Mom, like you seem to be, was a soup wizard, skillfully coaxing heavenly depth of flavor from inexpensive ingredients. So, your chowder and special oyster crackers are sounding like just what I need today. Thanks for another great post.

    Liked by 1 person

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