Essential Clam Chowder

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There are two foundational chowder recipes to be familiar with:  fish chowder and clam chowder.  We have already dealt with fish chowder in an earlier article, and will now talk about its sibling relation.  The clam chowder I know best is the classic New England clam (or quahog) chowder; this recipe was adapted from one found in Jasper White’s 50 Chowders, a book I highly recommend for the serious enthusiast.

Quahogs (hard-shell clams) form the backbone of this dish.  But soft-shell clams can also be made into succulent chowders.  Space prevents me from talking about them here, and they really deserve their own separate article.  Quahogs are not that difficult to find in a reasonably good fish market.  Smaller quahogs are known by the name cherrystones.

Before beginning this recipe, you’ll need to have a good amount of clam broth.  This can either be made yourself by boiling an amount of cherrystones in water and saving the result, or you can go the easy way and just buy a few bottles of clam juice in your local grocery store.  Realistically, most people are just going to buy their own juice.  The busy cook often doesn’t have time for all the formalities.  The same rule applies to the clams used in this dish.  You can either buy your own fresh clams at the local fish market, or you can buy freshly shucked and diced clams from your fish market, if they are available.  Whatever you do, DO NOT use canned clams.  I just think the end result is so poor that they’re just not a reasonable option.  Freshness matters with seafood.  Always.

Ingredients

  • 8 lbs. small quahogs or large cherrystones
  • 4 oz. thick smoked bacon, diced
  • 4 tbls. butter
  • 2 onions, diced
  • 3 cloves fresh garlic
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 6 sprigs of fresh thyme, chopped
  • 4 dry bay leaves
  • 2 lbs. Russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, diced
  • 1.5 cups heavy cream or half-and-half
  • Salt, pepper, Italian parsley, and chives for garnish

Directions

Steam the clams for a few minutes until they open up.  Keep the broth.  When the clams are cool enough to handle, remove them and cut them into small pieces.

Heat a large pot over medium heat.  Add the diced bacon and cook until golden brown.  Pour off most of the fat, but leave some at the bottom of the pot.  Then add the butter, onions, garlic, celery, thyme, and bay leaves.  Stir this for a few minutes until the onions are cooked.

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Add the potatoes and the clam broth you have saved.  There should be enough liquid to cook the potatoes.  If not, add water or more clam juice.  Some cooks say you can add a few splashes of white wine or beer here, and that is not a bad idea.

Cook the potatoes until they are just about done.  Remove the pot from the heat and add the diced clams and the cream (or half-and-half).  You can add seasonings at this point like pepper and chives.  You should also let the chowder “cure” or rest at room temperature or in the refrigerator for at least an hour.  Doing so will allow all the complex flavors in the chowder to come together.

When reheating the chowder, do not boil it:  just heat it up enough without reaching the boiling point.  When adding parsley and chives at the end for garnish, be generous with it.  The green color is a nice offset to the otherwise uniform color of the chowder.

You can serve the chowder with clam fritters (we call them clam cakes) if you have them, or thick crackers.

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