The Best Thing About New England Clam Chowder is….

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Clam chowder for Christmas.  It’s as sure as Santa Clause.  The stockings are excavated, the presents beneath the tree have exploded into a flurry of paper, tissue and cardboard and the morning helpings of prosecco and egg nog have run dry.  It is now time for clam chowder, our family’s tradition.  Being from New England, my Mom makes a smooth, soothing, lightly-rich clam chowder, a recipe she’s been tending to for years.  A light chop of the potatoes, a simple dice of an onion, a low and slow simmer of milk, cream and clams.
This chowder is humble yet elegant, as much a special occasion meal as it is an every-day standby.  For the first time this year, I asked for my Mom’s recipe – saved in her mind only, no written record of amounts and measures to be had.  After all she has been coaxing these ingredients in a pot and loving them into a beautiful soup for years… her sense of a dash here/a dash there well honed from hours of watching her mother stir the clam chowder into a family tradition.
 A couple of run-throughs and some trial-and-error later and I had perfected my own chowder.  Now, please don’t tell my Mother but, well… I changed a few things.  And this caused me no small amount of trepidation.  But tell me… what could be so sinful about the addition of a clove of garlic… a dash of red pepper flakes for warmth, not spice… a bouquet garni of thyme and bay leaf for added depth?  As I tucked into my winning bowl of chowder it brought me straight to Christmas day, my Mother’s teachings at the heart of the matter – a dash of foodie-girl thrown in for good measure.  I will be upholding this tradition in the years to come.  My mother made her mark.  It’s time for me to add mine.

You may absolutely make clam chowder without fresh clams.  Canned will do perfectly fine.  There is nothing that compares with the larger, sweet live clams, however, and they add a touch of chic.  When buying fresh clams, you want to make sure they have been harvested within the past ten days.

I purchased 12 clams for this recipe, but feel free to add as many as you would like.  To begin, submerge the clams in a bowl of cold water, ensuring that they are covered by at least one inch.  Let sit for thirty minutes, allowing the clams to suck the water in and spit any remaining sand and grit back out.  Lift the clams out of the water one at a time and give them a good scrub with a small brush or a damp dish towel.  Do not make the mistake of dumping the clams from the water into a colander.  The grit and sand will sink to the bottom of the bowl and will be poured directly back onto the clams if you do, defeating the purpose of the soaking.

While the clams are soaking, prep the base for the chowder.  You will need two cups of potatoes in a quarter-inch dice.  Yukon or russet are perfect – I like to leave the skin on but feel free to peel them if you prefer.  Mince one tbs garlic and dice one half of an onion, yielding approximately three quarters of a cup.

It is a wonderful way to infuse flavor without actually adding herbs to your broth.  I love the depth of thyme and bay leaves have been working their magic for centuries.  Tie four stems of thyme and one bay leaf together and set aside.

Warm a large pot over medium heat.  Add one tbs of unsalted butter and one tbs of olive oil.  Add the onions and saute for three to five minutes until opaque.

Add the garlic and one half tsp red pepper flakes.  Stir until fragrant, about thirty seconds.

Add the potatoes to the pot along with eight ounces clam juice and one and one half cups of water.  Throw in the bouquet garni and one teaspoon of salt.  Stir and bring to a boil for seven minutes, until the potatoes are just cooked through.

I know.  Canned clams?  Seriously?  YES!  Are they the most amazing, incredible seafood you will ever experience?  No.  Are they a wonderfully convenient and flavorful addition to pastas, soups and the like?  Absolutely!  You will need two 10 ounce cans for this chowder.  Once the potatoes are cooked through pour the cans directly into the pot, juice and all.  Add one more eight ounce jar of clam juice and turn the heat back to medium, letting the clams simmer for three to five minutes.

This next step is where my Mom and I differ the most.  I really enjoy a creamy chowder, one that coats your mouth as you savor the richness.  My mother prefers her chowder a bit lighter, opting for half-and-half as her base, creating an elegant and deeply flavored broth.  I’ll let you decide, but, for foodie-girl’s chowder, I worked with equal parts heavy cream and whole milk – one and a half cups of each.

Add the cream and milk to the chowder and continue to simmer, gently boiling the broth without burning the cream.  After five minutes, carefully transfer one cup of the broth and clam mixture to a blender and puree.  Add it back to the chowder and stir to combine.  This will help thicken the broth and develop a more intense base of flavors.  Season with one half tsp kosher salt and one quarter tsp freshly cracked black pepper.  Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.

Finally, add the juice of one half of a lemon, one tbs unsalted butter, and the live clams to the pot.  Stir and cover the chowder, letting the clams steam for three to five minutes.  You will know they are ready once they open.  Check the clams after three minutes as you don’t want to overcook them and, once they have opened, be sure to discard any remaining little guys who have remained firmly shut.  This means they are bad and should not be eaten.  Serve with oysters crackers and share with your friends and family.  For me, clam chowder is warm, welcoming and peaceful.  I hope my family’s recipe provides you with a touch of the Christmas spirit, no matter what time of year it may be.

Serves Six

  • 12 – 20 live clams, harvested within 10 days of purchase
  • two cups of potatoes in a quarter-inch dice
  • one tbs garlic
  • three quarters of a cup diced onion
  • four stems fresh thyme
  • one bay leaf
  • one quarter tsp red pepper flakes
  • two eight ounce jars of clam juice
  • one and one half cups water
  • three quarters tsp kosher salt, divided
  • quarter tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • two tbs unsalted butter, divided
  • one tbs olive oil
  • two 10 ounce cans whole, wild, baby clams
  • one and one half cups heavy cream
  • one and one half cups whole milk
  • the juice from one half lemon
  • oyster crackers for serving
To begin, submerge the clams in a bowl of cold water, ensuring that they are covered by at least one inch.  Let sit for thirty minutes, allowing the clams to suck the water in and spit any remaining sand and grit back out.  Lift the clams out of the water one at a time and give them a good scrub with a small brush or a damp dish towel.  Do not make the mistake of dumping the clams from the water into a colander.  The grit and sand will sink to the bottom of the bowl and will be poured directly back onto the clams if you do, defeating the purpose of the soaking.
While the clams are soaking, prep the base for the chowder.  You will need two cups of potatoes in a quarter-inch dice.  Yukon or russet are perfect – I like to leave the skin on but feel free to peel them if you prefer.  Mince one tbs garlic and dice one half of an onion, yielding approximately three quarters of a cup.  Tie four stems of thyme and one bay leaf together and set aside.
Warm a large pot over medium heat.  Add one tbs of unsalted butter and one tbs of olive oil.  Add the onions and saute for three to five minutes until opaque.  Add the garlic and one half tsp red pepper flakes.  Stir until fragrant, about thirty seconds.
Add the potatoes to the pot along with eight ounces clam juice and one and one half cups of water.  Throw in the bouquet garni and one tsp of salt.  Stir and bring to a boil for seven minutes, until the potatoes are just cooked through.  Once the potatoes are cooked through pour the cans directly into the pot, juice and all.  Add one more eight ounce jar of clam juice and turn the heat back to medium, letting the clams simmer for three to five minutes.
Add the cream and milk to the chowder and continue to simmer, gently boiling the broth without burning the cream.  After five minutes, carefully transfer one cup of the broth and clam mixture to a blender and puree.  Add it back to the chowder and stir to combine.  This will help thicken the broth and develop a more intense base of flavors.  Season with one half tsp kosher salt and one quarter tsp freshly cracked black pepper.  Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.
Add the juice of one half of a lemon, one tbs unsalted butter, and the live clams to the pot.  Stir and cover the chowder, letting the clams steam for three to five minutes.  You will know they are ready once they open.  Check the clams after three minutes as you don’t want to overcook them and, once they have opened, be sure to discard any remaining little guys who have remained firmly shut.  This means they are bad and should not be eaten.  Serve with oysters crackers and share with your friends and family.