Clam chowder is not something we take lightly out in New England. There’s no excuse for anything less than fresh clams, homemade stock, or the marriage of those savory but creamy flavors. Having said that, each clam shack’s variety is different, but everyone has their favorite. Mine is at my own table.
After nearly 4 years of shellfishing and cooking chowder, I finally feel that I’ve gotten my recipe just right. I tried my hand out on chowder early. My very first week after moving from Chicago, a big snow storm came in. The grocery store was packed and the water aisle looked like raccoons had gotten a hankering for water bottles. Amidst all of this unnecessary chaos, I was looking at the fish counter, making my first ever fresh clam purchase. While cooking, my power went out. My power went out for four days. Alone, I found myself wondering why I had come here and what was the meaning of it all. However, I did have a huge pot of clam chowder that lasted me the whole storm, stored out in the snow. It was literally, just me and the clams.
(The big container was for the other contents of my fridge. The one on the right with the big snow chunk protecting it from varmint hands was the chowder)
My original, solitary chowder mainly used chopped, canned clams, with about a pound of fresh little necks thrown in at the end. I felt New England AF having those open up in the hot soup, and picking out the clam bodies as I spooned through my bowls of chowder. I had no idea how important using fresh stock and clams would be for perfecting the flavor. I also burned the bottom of the pan reheating it over and over.
But I soon started digging for fresh shellfish, making friends, and sharing clam recipes at the dinner table. My chowder recipe today is a savory delicate broth, slow made with fresh clams and stock. Using both potatoes and sweet potatoes as a thickener sweetens the soup a little, but admittedly my chowder is not very thick. I like to be able to go overboard with bread and crackers to soak it all up. It’s not really just me and the clams anymore, but when I’m eating chowder it sure seems like it.
Ingredients (Takes about 1 hour 30 mins to 2 hours, serves 4)
- 5lbs fresh little necks or cherrystone clams (I prefer the smaller ones because they’re sweeter)
- ¾ cup white wine
- 4 slices of bacon, chopped
- 4 tbsp unsalted butter
- ¼ cup flour
- ½ cup chopped onion
- ½ cup chopped celery
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 medium russet potato (about ½ cup grated and another ½ cup chopped)
- 1 medium sweet potato (about ½ cup grated and another ½ cup chopped)
- 1 teaspoon + garnish finely chopped thyme
- 12-15 dashes tabasco
- 1 ¼ cup cream
- Crackers or bread (sourdough is nice)
- Lemon - optional
Clean the clams. Even when I get my clams from the market, I’ll give them a brief scrub with a brush (without soap) under cold water to remove any lingering sand or grit. I have a method that works for me, which involves dumping all of the clams into the sink, and as they’re scrubbed, adding them to a colander.
Pour the wine and 1 ¼ cup water into a large pot. Then place a steamer in there, and add your clams. If you don’t have a steamer, that’s okay, but you might want to shift your clams around as you heat them so the bottom ones don’t overcook on the bottom of the pot. Bring the heat up to medium and cover the pot until they open. The time needed really depends on the size of the clams; bigger ones need more time. Generally this takes around 15-20 minutes.
While your clams are steaming, you can prep the other food by chopping the onions, celery, bacon, and thyme. You can also grate and chop the potatoes. Generally I peel both, chop them in half. One half gets grated and one half gets chopped finely (about ¼ inch). You want those chopped pieces to be really small so they don’t take forever to cook in the soup. Don’t be weirded out if the russet potato browns a little as it sits out as you’re cooking the other steps of the recipe.
When the clams have opened, remove them from the heat. When they’re cool enough to handle, remove their clam bodies and chop them finely. I usually wash my hands again and do a quick massaging of them to make sure there aren’t any shell bits. Place these in the fridge while you do the rest.
Pour the liquid in the pan (your salty, homemade stock!) into a pitcher or large liquid measuring cup. Even though you’ll only use 2 cups of it, pour it all into something so that the leftover clam bits sink to the bottom.
Give your large pot a quick rinse and wipe. Then add the butter and the bacon on medium heat. You’ll want to keep moving everything around with a wooden spoon so that nothing burns at all. You don’t want any burned bits taking over the flavor of your chowder; it’s all in the same pot from here!
Once the bacon is pretty much cooked, but not crispy, you’ll make a roux by adding the flour. This is going to thicken up the soup later, and add a nice toasted flavor. Keep moving the flour around in the grease, bacon, and butter mix until it turns slightly darker. This is called a blond roux. If you do burn this, it’s not too late to turn back, rise the pan, and start over with new bacon and butter.
Once the roux is slightly darker (2-3 minutes), add the celery and onion, continuing to stir. It is going to smell heavenly in a minute. Keep stirring slowly for about 3-4 minutes.
Add 2 cups of the reserved stock. Try to do this all at once. There are different opinions out there on whether stock should be hot when added to hot roux, but as there are pros for both sides, I side on the one that doesn’t require an additional pan on the stove. I have noticed that you’re less likely to clump when adding the stock all at once though. Just add the 2 cups and stir quickly to combine.
Once the broth is incorporated, add the grated potatoes and bay leaf. Push the veggies and bacon so that they are spread out across the pot so that everything is as covered by liquid as possible. Simmer for 12-15 minutes, stirring occasionally to break up any bits at the bottom of the pot.
After the 12-15 minutes, remove the bay leaf and puree what’s left in the pot. You can use a blender or a food processor to get the job done, but I love using a handheld blender. If you have one, try tilting the pot so that you can just hold your blender in place and let gravity do the work for you. Be patient and try to blend this as smoothly as you can.
Then add the chopped potatoes at a simmer. These usually need about 25 minutes to cook, but it really depends on the size of your spuds. I recommend stirring occasionally and just tasting them to see if they’re soft every 4-5 minutes or so.
Once the potatoes are soft, add the cream, thyme, and tobasco. Start with 12 dashes or so of the hot sauce, and then taste to see if you want more. Then add the reserved clams.
The stock is really never the same when working with fresh clams, so at this point I usually test the soup liberally, and see if it’s too salty. If you think you have too much salt, try adding a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice at a time. I never add more than 3 teaspoons (1 tablespoon). You’ll also notice that I prefer my chowder more brothy than other creamy varieties. This is so I can overload it with bread. If you want to thicken and cream up your soup, mix 1 cup of cream with ¼ cup flour. Then add a little bit at a time to the pot, as it thickens.
Serve with extra thyme, and crackers or bread for dipping!