As most of you know, we had a blizzard here last Tuesday. Jen was visiting from Tennessee (and took all the pics for this blog post) and we decided that clam chowder was the best defense against the elements. By the way, this is what a Southerner looks like braving a blizzard…not bad, actually…
I will be the first to admit that I was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in New Jersey, and went to college in Delaware, so maybe I should be making Manhattan Clam Chowder. We all know that would be wrong, though. I also fully expect some New England native to look at what follows and find at least half a dozen things I’m doing “wrong.” I’m fine with that. I’m also fine with the fact that everyone loves my clam chowder, including natives. 😉
People ask me a LOT for my clam chowder recipe. And I never have one. I’m not being coy or secretive. I literally don’t have one. I don’t measure, I don’t think the chowder is ever quite the same twice, and like all soups, it’s always even better the second day. I’m going to attempt to show you how I make my chowder, but please accept the fact that it’s ok to make soup without a precision recipe – in fact, sometimes it’s better to – and have fun making your own approximate chowder recipes.
First thing I do is put a little olive oil in to the bottom of a very heavy stock pot. This one belonged to my husband’s grandmother. You can also use butter (yay, butter!), or any oil of your choice, but I like the flavor of either olive oil or butter. I then cut up some bacon (or salt pork), and start cooking it in the oil in the pan. This adds a little bacon or salt pork fat to the soup as well for flavoring.
Next I chop up a good sized onion and put that in with the saute-ing bacon. You can also add carrots and celery, but I did not have those in the house on this occasion. I even put kale in to the finished soup, but a dear Maine native friend of mine (who loves kale in other contexts) says that is positively taboo.
Next I dice about half a dozen potatoes and add them to the pot. I then add chicken or vegetable stock in enough quantity to cover the potatoes, depending on what I have in the house. This is a great reason to make stocks out of your vegetable bits or poultry carcasses or ham bones or what have you and then freeze them so that you can use them on the fly in soups. I did not have any left in the freezer, so I had to use store bought. Let everything simmer in the stock until the potatoes are just fork tender.
When the potatoes are fork tender, it’s time to add enough milk or half & half or cream (this is entirely up to you and your cholesterol levels) to make the soup creamy, but not so much that it makes the soup too thin in terms of vegetable to broth ratio. If you go with milk, which is inherently less creamy, you can use a little corn starch to thicken the chowder. Add a bottle of clam juice, and the clams. I used both fresh frozen chopped clams and a can of whole clams. Do not boil the soup vigorously or cook it too long after this step because you do not want your nice tender clams to toughen.
You can season this soup in any way that makes you happy, although I would avoid really strong flavors that will overpower the delicate taste of the clams. I just use sea salt (when needed) and freshly ground black pepper (not too much). And, as I mentioned, I like garnishing with cooked kale, although this is anathema in some circles and perhaps a safer bet is garnishing with oyster crackers (especially if you have a native Mainer at the table).
So, this is what it looked like by the time we sat down to eat. (Please excuse the chipped bowl. These were my grandmother’s dishes from her camp on Little Sebago Lake – see our blog post about Maine lake culture – and I can’t part with them even when they chip.) We served the chowder with mussels marinara (perhaps another blog post?), Teriyaki steak strips left over from the night before, a green salad, and my son’s home brewed cinnamon vanilla porter (definitely will be another blog post on that).
This is old fashioned home cooking. I am not a chef. I have no formal training. One of the things I love about making soups is that it is analogous to rug hooking in some ways. Hooking is forgiving in ways that knitting, cross stitch, quilting, and other precision crafts are not. There is so much freedom in hooking, so much room for experimentation and expression. So it is with soups. So just see what you’ve got sitting about in your fridge and have fun with soup making.
Happy cooking and happy hooking! – Beth