Repeat after me, “Chow-DAH!” That’s the way it should be said, if you are anywhere in the vicinity of New England, which is the birthplace of this wonderful clam stew. The word “chowder” is thought to have been derived from “chaudière”, an old French term for cauldron, or a big cooking pot. Traditionally chowder is made with salt pork, onions, potatoes, milk or cream, butter, and fish like cod or haddock, or clams. Many of the older recipes add some wine (Madeira) as well. There’s a wonderful website I recommend called The New England Chowder Compendium which showcases a collection of historical chowder recipes dating back to the 1700s. Chowder is one of those things that is made in many different ways, and pretty much everyone thinks their way is best. It’s worth noting that the variations of this stew go back hundreds of years!
On a recent trip to Massachusetts, we sampled clam chowders at practically every stop. The best one we had, in my opinion, was at a little coffee shop in Concord, Mass. The soup was creamy, but not overly so (some clam chowders can be such cream bombs), thickened a little with flour, but not too much, and with tasty chunks of what appeared to be salt pork, and lots of corn in addition to chopped clams. I loved it! Corn isn’t usually included in clam chowder, but believe me, it’s fabulous.
Here is my take on clam chowder, with plenty of suggestions for substitutions. Even my dad, who insists he doesn’t like clam chowder, loved this soup. Consider the recipe a guideline, and play with it to your liking.
Speaking of which, how do you like your clam chowder? Please let us know in the comments.
This recipe uses fresh clams. If you don't have access to fresh clams, you can use clam juice and canned chopped clams. In that case, skip steps 1 and 2 and use 16 oz of clam juice, and 1 1/2 to 2 cups of chopped clams, saving the liquid from the cans to add to the clam juice. Salt pork is traditional, it's like slab bacon that hasn't been smoked. You can easily substitute with bacon, or pancetta. If you don't use salt pork, you may need to add more salt to the soup. The flour is a thickener. If you are cooking gluten-free or want a thinner consistency to your soup, leave it out. If you want a thicker soup, add more flour.
- About 4 lbs of littleneck or cherrystone clams (about 3 dozen clams or so, depending on the size)
- 1 Tbsp butter or vegetable oil
- 4 ounces salt pork, cubed (or chopped bacon or pancetta, cubed)
- 2 cups chopped onion
- 1 Tbsp flour (or more, depending on how thick you want the soup)
- 1 cup dry white wine, like a Sauvignon blanc (or you can use 2 Tbsp of white or cider vinegar, or lemon juice)
- 2 pounds potatoes (russets or Yukon gold), peeled and diced
- 1 to 2 cups of water
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 sprigs of thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning (or paprika with a dash of cayenne)
- 1 1/2 cups corn (frozen is fine) optional
- 1 cup whipping cream
- 2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1 Rinse and scrub the clams to remove of any dirt. Place clams in a bowl, cover with cold water and refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour. This will allow the clams to expel some of their grit into the water. Discard any broken clams or clams that are open and do not close when you touch them.
2 Steam the clams. Place the clams in a large pot and add about a half inch of water to the pot. Cover the pot and bring the water to a boil. Let the clams steam until they all open up, 5 to 10 minutes. The steaming water may foam up a bit, so watch so it doesn't overflow the pot. Use a slotted spoon to remove the clams from the pot to a bowl. Strain the remaining clam steaming liquid through a fine mesh sieve to catch any grit, and reserve. You should have 2 to 3 cups of clam liquid. Separate the clams from the clam shells. Discard the shells. Roughly chop the cooked clams.
3 Place the salt pork and butter or oil in the bottom of a large, thick-bottomed pot. Heat on medium and brown the salt pork. (Note that if you are using salt pork that is mostly fat, you won't need any additional fat from butter or oil, but you might want to put a little water in the pan to help render the fat from the salt pork.)
4 Add the chopped onion to the pan, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle flour over the onions and stir until everything is coated with the flour. Let the flour cook for a minute or two. Slowly add the white wine to the pot, stirring after each addition.
5 Add potatoes to the pot. Add 2 to 3 cups of the strained clam steaming liquid and a cup of water. The liquid should cover the potatoes. If not, add a little more, either water or clam cooking liquid. Add the bay leaf, thyme, black pepper, and Old Bay. Heat to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, then add the corn (if using) and cook for 5 minutes more, or until the potatoes are cooked through.
6 While the potatoes are cooking, heat a cup of cream in a small saucepan until steamy. When the potatoes are tender, add the chopped clams and turn off the heat of the soup. Slowly stir in the heated cream. Adjust seasonings. Stir in the fresh parsley.
Serve with oyster crackers or rustic bread.