Saturday, March 18, 2017

A (Non-Traditional) New England Clam Chowder

I am back.  It has been several months since I have posted anything on this blog.  I have been cooking, although not as much as I would like or with the experimentation that fuels this blog.  The problem is that I have not been writing blog posts, because things have been very busy around here.

Still, the recipes mull around in the back of my mind.  One such recipe is this New England Clam Chowder.  I made this chowder for the Savage Boleks Super Bowl Party, as the dish representing New England.   

Indeed, clam chowder is a quintessential dish in New England.  The history of the dish can be traced back to at least the 1700s, but it rose to prominence in the region in the early part of the 19th century.  The chowder gained a wider audience when it was described by Herman Melville in the classic, Moby Dick.  Melville described clam chowder served by Trys Pot, a chowder house in Nantucket, Massachusetts.  Melville wrote in some rather tasty terms:

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. 

Fast forward one hundred and sixty six years and you find myself getting ready to make a big pot of New England Clam Chowder for my family and friends.  While I have made clam chowder in the past, this dish represents my best effort to date. And, after much thought, I think there are two reasons for that.

First, I decided to alter the recipe in one major way.  The original recipe, which I got from Bon Appetit called for cherrystone clams, which would be chopped into "bite size pieces."  I bought littleneck clams, which are smaller than cherrystone clams (you get about 7-10 littleneck clams per pound, while you get 6 to 9 cherrystone clams per pound).  Given they were smaller, I decided not to chop the clams.  This left small, whole clams in the chowder.  Something that I think would be reminiscent of, albeit slightly larger than, the "hazel nut" sized clams described by Herman Melville.

Second, I decided to use hickory smoked bacon, rather than just plain old bacon. This choice goes against convention.  Traditional clam chowders are made with salt pork, which is not smoked.  Most restaurants substitute un-smoked bacon.  The rationale behind the use of un-smoked bacon is that one wants to enjoy the brininess of the clams, which could get lost with smoked bacon.  Given I decided to keep the clams whole, rather than chop them into pieces, I decided to take a risk and use smoked bacon.  I think the risk paid off, because it added another layer of flavor to the chowder.

In the end, I think my family and friends enjoyed this chowder.  I certainly liked this chowder a lot.  So much that the thought of writing this blog post persevered even through the most busiest of times.  There are other posts like this one, although they will have to wait for another day.

Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit
Serves many


10 pounds of littleneck clams, scrubbed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
8 ounces bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2 celery stalks, minced
1 large onion, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
6 cups clam juice (or reserved broth from steaming clams)
2 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 cups heavy cream
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
Flat leaf parsley, chopped
Oyster crackers

1.  Steam the clams.  Bring clams and 4 cups of water to a boil in a large pot over high heat.  Cook until clams just open, 8 to 10 minutes (discard any that do not open).  using a large slotted spoon, transfer clams to a large rimmed baking sheet; set broth aside.  Let clams cool slightly, pull meat from shells and discard the shells.  

2.  Make the base.  Melt butter in a large heavy pot over medium heat.  Add bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until fat is rendered and bacon begins to brown, about 8 minutes.  Add celery, onions and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is translucent, about 10 minutes.  Add reserved broth (or 6 cups of clam juice), potatoes, thyme and bay leaf.  Bring chowder base to a simmer.  Cook until potatoes are tender, about 20 to 25 minutes.  

3.  Add cornstarch slurry.  Stir cornstarch and 2 tablespoons of water in a small bowl to form a slurry.  Stir slurry into chowder base.  Return to a boil to thicken.

4.  Finish the dish.  Remove base from heat.  Discard bay leaf.  Stir in reserve clams and cream  Season with salt (if needed, because the brininess of clams varies) and pepper.  Divide chowder among bowls and garnish with the parsley and serve with oyster crackers.


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