Recipe Project #16: Clam Chowder

Thomas Keller's Clam Chowder

I threatened all winter to make clam chowder, but being a Southern girl… well, I was intimidated by clams. How do you know which ones to use? How do you know a good one? Can you keep them overnight? It all just seemed so different.

As it turns out, bivalves are not terribly complicated. (You might have guessed this.) The recipe called for littlenecks, the fish counter at the local grocery had them for 54 cents each, and Mr. Husband brought home a couple of pounds of them. I stuck them in the coldest part of the fridge overnight and they seemed fine. And so last Sunday afternoon, I got busy making a clam chowder before it gets too warm for such things. It’s late April, sure, but we still bring the potted herbs into the garage every night because of frost.

All this time I’d been planning to use one of John and Matt Thorne’s well-researched recipes from Serious Pig, but when it came down to it, I made the Clam Chowder with Bacon recipe from Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home. It’s a gorgeous book that I put off buying for some time, but after my colleague GR got his own copy, I couldn’t resist anymore. You should buy both, but the Thorne is particularly fine bedtime reading. The Keller is also fabulous and certainly far more accessible for home cooks than his previous offerings, but it doesn’t mollycoddle. No definitions are offered, and the recipes assume you know what you’re doing.

This made a very fine clam chowder that took a little more than 2 hours to pull together. I probably won’t make it again, because the preparation is a bit more twee than I want; it seems to me that a clam chowder should be homely. Great pains are taken to make sure that the potatoes remain distinct, for instance. I really want mine to be a bit crumbly and the whole thing to be well on its way to synthesis.

I think this was the first time I ever personally killed anything to eat. And as it turns out, even clams don’t want to die. One had suffered a cracked shell somewhere in its travels, and as I moved them all to their second salt bath to purge, I saw that it was a bit open. I know enough to know that open clams are not good clams, and so I thought I should grab it and pitch it out. But when I looked at it hard it clamped its bits down again, so into the butter and wine it went. All of them took more than the prescribed four minutes to open, and as they died their shells sprung with such force that they pinged against the metal top of the saute pan.

Clam Chowder with Bacon
(Note: I halved all measurements)

8 ounces applewood smoked slab bacon
Canola oil
2 cups coarsely chopped leeks (white and light green parts only)
2 cups coarsely chopped onions
5 garlic cloves
Kosher salt
2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1/2 inch dice
1 Sachet (10 peppercorns, 1 bay leaf, 2 thyme sprigs, 1 smashed garlic cloves, all tied up in cheesecloth)

4 pounds littleneck or Manila clams
1 1/4 cups kosher salt
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) unsalted butter
1/3 cup chopped shallots
2 thyme sprigs
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc

4 1/2 tablespoons (2 1/4 ounces) unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
3 cups heavy cream (I’d use light cream in the future. Light, not lite.)
3 tablespoons finely chopped chives

Cut the bacon into lardons that measure 1 inch by 1/2 inch think.

Heat some canola oil in an 8 to 10 quart stockpot over medium heat. Add the bacon, reduce the heat to low, and let the fat render for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring from time to time; the bacon should color but not crisp. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon from the pan.

Add the leeks, onions, and garlic to the pan and stir to coat with bacon fat. Sprinkle with salt, cover with a parchment lid, and cook very slowly for 30 to 35 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Remove and discard the lid.

Put the potatoes, sachet, and 2 teaspoons salt in a large saucepan, add cold water to cover, bring to a simmer, and cook until the potatoes are just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and spread on a tray to cool; discard the sachet.

Use a clean scouring pad to scrub any sand from the shells of the clams. Put the clams in a large bowl. Mix 8 cups water and the salt in another bowl, stirring to to dissolve the salt. Pour enough of the water over the clams to cover, and soak for about 5 minutes, to purge them of any sand.

Life the clams from the water, drain the water, and repeat the soaking one more time. Drain the clams and rinse under cold water.

When the vegetables are tender, increase the heat to medium and add the butter. Once the butter has melted, stir in the flour to coat the vegetables and cook for 2-3 minutes to take away the raw flour taste. Whisk in the milk and cream, season to taste with salt and pepper, and bring to a very low simmer.

Melt the 2 tablespoons butter in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and thyme sprigs, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, for about 1 minute, until the shallots are tender. Add the wine, bring to a boil, and cook for 2 minutes to evaporate some of the alcohol. Add the clams, cover the pan, and cook for about 4 minutes, removing the clams as they open. Strain all the clam liquid through a fine-mesh conical strainer into a bowl. Shell the clams and set aside.

Gently stir clam liquid to taste into the soup (avoid any sand that may have settled in the bottom of the bowl.) Season the chowder with salt and pepper to taste. Gently stir in the potatoes, and add about two-thirds of the clams.

Spread the bacon in a small frying pan and crisp over medium-high heat. Garnish the soup with the bacon, remaining clams, and the chives.

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