Chowing Down on New England Clam Chowda

Making chowder from scratch is world’s better than that canned crap!

My fiance Regina is originally from Bean Town, The City on the Hill, The Big Clam, The Cradle of Liberty. Call it what you will, but I call Boston the home of the best creamy clam chowder in the country. Regina has fond childhood memories of scarfing chowder (or chowda or chowdah, depending on the depth of your accent) at Quincy Market. When she moved to the Bay Area she found perhaps the second-most chowder-addicted city in the country in San Francisco, where they favor a thicker version served somewhat comically in a sourdough bread bowl. Given her background it’s not entirely surprising that chowder flows through her veins and that occasionally, with a junkie-like freneticism, she needs her chowder fix!

So I enter the story as her chowder-pusher, if you will. I absolutely adore clam chowder as well, also having eaten numerous times both at Quincy Market and Fisherman’s Wharf and many points in between. But I’m not solely a New England style chowder fan; I also love Manhattan style clam chowder (rich with tomato broth) and the thinner Rhode Island version. As long as the clams are fresh I’m there!

And that’s the entire point of chowder — the clams! Whether you like it thin or thick or creamy or tomatoey-tart, the chowder should taste of the sea, of seafood — briny, sweet, and deep. When Regina suggested I do a post about chowder and teach her how to make it simultaneously, we discussed her how she liked it and how I liked it. When it comes to chowder we both agree on fresh clams (not canned!) and about medium-thick — ya know, not watery but not so thick that a spoon can stand up in it! We like oyster crackers, not that bread bowl thing. I told her I like a sprinkle of Tabasco sauce on top at the end; she frowned slightly but consented to try.

I’ve been under the impression that classically clam chowder is composed of just three main ingredients — clams, potatoes, and salt pork. But I’ve perused many, many recipes and variations abound through the years. Cream, no cream, tomatoes, no tomatoes, corn, no corn, flour, no flour, and on and on the variations go. You might check out The New England Chowder Compendium, from the Beatrice McIntosh Cookery Collection at the UMASS library (URL: http://www.library.umass.edu/spcoll/chowder/about.htm). This is a fascinating look into decades, no centuries, of chowder-making in the six New England states. Ultimately this brief research yielded up one simple fact: chowders are as individual as people. So discard what you think you know as tradition, and well, just cook what you like. And I like bacon instead of salt pork, some flour to thicken it, a little wine to keep it from being too cloyingly creamy, and large Littleneck clams.

This recipe is sorta classic creamy chowder. No major wacky deviations. Just an amazing bowl of soup.

Pretty big for littlenecks!

You’re gonna need:

32-35 large Littleneck clams, about 6 pounds (smaller clams like cherrystones and manilas are fine)
2 cups water
1 cup dry white wine, divided
1 small celery stalk, whole
4 thyme sprigs
3 slices bacon, applewood smoked and thick-cut preferably, cut into little pieces
2 tablespoons butter
1 small to medium white onion, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large russet potato, cut into 1/2-inch dice and kept in cold water until ready for use
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
4 tablespoons flour
2 8-ounce bottles of clam juice
1 bay leaf, fresh if possible
1 cup heavy cream
minced parsely for garnish
oyster crackers
Tabasco sauce or other hot sauce

Why do they call them littlenecks? I see no necks at all!

Do This:

Wash your clams well under cold running water, scrubbing with a stiff brush or dish sponge with an abrasive side (I keep a sponge dedicated to this purpose.). You want to make sure the clams are free from grit inside and out. One tip is to place the clams in a stainless steel mixing bowl. Run cold tap water down the inside of the bowl or over the back of a metal spoon and fill up the bowl to cover the clams with water. I’ve read that the water running over the metal creates a tiny electrostatic charge that tickles the clams and compels them to expel any sand inside them. I’m not sure if this 100% true, but it does seem to work. I wash the clams three times in this fashion, making sure to lift the clams out by hand, placing them temporarily into another bowl, and rinsing out the grit in the bowl between each clam-wash.

Now, you’ll need a big heavy-bottomed pot. Put clams, water, half the wine, whole celery stalk, and two thyme sprigs into the pot. Cover and turn heat to high. After the water boils, take the lid off and
remove with tongs any clams as they open. Drop cooked clams into an ice bath to stop prevent them from over-cooking. Continue cooking clams until all open. If you have an clams that won’t open, throw ’em out!

Remove the clams from the shells with your fingers. Chuck the shells and coarsely chop the clams. Reserve the clams to put back in the soup later. 

Drop cooked clams into an ice bath to arrest the cooking process.

Line a strainer with several layers of cheesecloth and set over a large bowl. Strain the clam cooking liquid through the cheesecloth to remove any sand that may boil out of the clams. Discard cheesecloth and reserve broth. You should have about 3 cups of fresh clam juice. Add bottled clam juice to that.

Now, wash out the same pot and dry very well. Heat over medium flame and cook the bacon until most of the fat has rendered out and the bacon is crisp. While the bacon cooks drain the potatoes and set aside. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and hold onto it for later. Add butter and melt.

Turn heat to medium-high and add onion, celery, and garlic. Season with kosher salt and black pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, for about five minutes or until veggies have softened. Add drained potatoes and stir. Saute potatoes for a couple of minutes and then add the remaining wine. Cook until alcohol dissipates, meanwhile scraping the bottom of the pot to loosen any stickage. Sprinkle flour over the veggies and stir well. Saute for about one minute, stirring constantly. Add clam juice, bay leaf, and remaining fresh thyme. Stir all this very well to make sure the soup isn’t lumpy. When the chowder have boiled for two or three minutes, reduce heat to low and simmer for about 20 minutes or until the potatoes are soft. I like to smash a few of the potato chunks against the side of the pot to release starches into the soup. It helps to thicken the final product. Also, using a wooden spoon periodically scrap the bottom and sides of the pot to keep it from sticking.

Now add the chopped clams (and any liquid that they’re sitting in) and the bacon bits. Bring the whole thing up to a boil over medium-high heat and then reduce the heat to low. Stir in the cream and simmer for ten minutes. Kill the heat and set the pot on the back burner for thirty minutes to an hour; this process allows the flavors to meld well and the soup to thicken a bit more.

Freshly made chowder. So yummy!

Garnish chowder with parsley and serve with oysters crackers and hot sauce. A little salad to accompany it and you’ve got a great, balanced meal on a cool night.

It’s a pretty chowder, isn’t it?

My boy Bennet loves oyster crackers up his nostrils!

I know lots of the country is in the grips of an unseasonable heat wave, but it’s still cool at night here in LA. It’s still chowder season here.

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