Joseph Lincoln, author and native of Cape Cod wrote, “A New England clam chowder, made as it should be, is a dish to preach about, to chant praises and sing hymns and burn incense before. To fight for. The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought for — or on — clam chowder; part of it at least, I am sure it was. It is as American as the Stars and Stripes, as patriotic as the national Anthem. It is ‘Yankee Doodle in a kettle.’”
In his epic novel, Moby Dick, Herman Melville wrote, “However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.”
There is nothing more satisfying on a cold wet night than a steaming bowl of clam chowder, specifically New England Clam Chowder (not the tomato based Manhattan Clam Chowder!). We had just such night last week and this is exactly what I made…
*The starch released from the potatoes naturally thickens this clam chowder. Some recipes call for a flour and butter roux to thicken the soup, but I find the resulting chowder far too thick and pasty.
*Buy the smallest clams you can find, as they are the sweetest. Traditionally, quahog or large chowder clams are used, but littlenecks are more tender and sweet. Because of their small size, I like to leave the clams whole, but if you end up with larger clams, by all means chop them up.
*Soak those clams in water before steaming! There is nothing worse than biting into a clam and getting a mouthful of grit. Pick over the clams; throwing away any with broken shells or that aren’t tightly shut. Place them in a bowl of cold water and let them soak for 15-30 minutes (prep the veggies while your waiting), changing the water every so often. When the water stays clean, scrub and rinse one more time for good measure and you’re ready to go.
New England Clam Chowder
*adapted from Jasper White, chef and owner of the Summer Shack
4 oz salt pork, rind removed and cut into 1/3-inch pieces
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium onions, cut into ½-inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, cut into 1/3-inch pieces
5-6 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed
2 dried bay leaves
2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into ½- inch dice
3 cups reserved clam broth (from steaming clams)
8 pounds live clams (about 5-6 dozen littlenecks)
1 ½ cups heavy cream
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 Tablespoons minced fresh chives
salt and pepper to taste
Place clams (in their shells) in a large bowl filled with cold water. Allow to sit for 15-30 minutes, changing the water every so often. This will help release any grit. Give clams a final scrub and rinse to remove any remaining grit.
In a large stock pot or dutch oven, bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Gently place clams in boiling water, distributing evenly. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes.
Carefully remove lid and check on the clams. The clams are done when they have opened. Using tongs, remove any opened clams. Replace lid and continue to steam any clams that are still closed. After 3 minutes or so, carefully remove lid again… remove any clams that have opened and discard those that are still closed.
Pour clam broth into a large measuring cup, if you see any grit, pour it through a fine mesh sieve. You should have about 3 cups.
Remove clams from the shells and set aside. If you used large clams, roughly chop them. If they are small, you may leave them whole.
Heat a large dutch oven over low heat, and add salt pork. Once it has rendered a few tablespoons of fat, increase heat to medium and cook until salt pork is a crisp golden brown. Remove the salt pork and set aside for another use.
Increase the heat to medium high and add butter, onions, garlic, celery, thyme, and bay leaves to the pot. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until onions are softened and turning golden, about 5-10 minutes.
Add potatoes and reserved clam broth. The broth should barely cover the potatoes; if it doesn’t, add enough water to just cover them. Increase heat and bring to a boil. Cover, and cook potatoes vigorously until they are soft on the outside but still firm in the center, about 10 minutes. If the broth hasn’t thickened lightly, smash a few potatoes against the side of the pot, and cook 1-2 minutes more to release the starch.
Remove pot from the heat, and stir in clams and cream. Add parsley and chives. Season to taste.
Serve with Tabasco, or your favorite hot sauce.