Recipe Project #58: Down East Clam Chowder

I’ve been meaning to make another clam chowder, a lighter one. The last one I made was Ad Hoc Clam Chowder, which was exquisite but so heavy that I couldn’t bear to touch any of the leftovers. Mister Husband soldiered valiantly on through them, and then we were both cured of chowder for about a year. This time around, I wanted something that stood up to a cold winter’s day but didn’t weigh us down. And so I turned to the recipe for Clam Chowder #1 in one of John Thorne’s classic, wonderfully written collection of essays, Serious Pig. I’ve adored and learned from Thorne’s approach to food ever since I ran across his website many years ago and was entranced by his devotion to savory breakfasts, which I share. Unlike many food writers, Thorne portrays the day-to-day cooking life of someone who is intensely interested in food but working without a magazine kitchen budget. He often includes the fact that he bought something because it was on sale, because it could be frozen in bulk, or because it could otherwise be found locally and cheaply—like clams in Maine. Serious Pig came along on several flights during my job search in early 2009, and I have crystal-clear memories of reading the Chowder chapter while smushed up against the rear wall of a packed, over-heated flight that was circling over some northeastern city or another. It kept me sane then, and now this chowder recipe has become my house formula. It is lighter without being insubstantial, full of clam flavor, and a halved recipe makes almost exactly enough for two people with no leftovers.

John Thorne’s Clam Chowder #1 (Soft-Shell Clams)
36 live soft-shell clams (1 quart shucked)
1/4 cup diced salt pork (rind removed)
1 large onion, chopped
3 or 4 potatoes, cut “thick-thin”
2 cups whole milk
Salt and black pepper to taste
8 common crackers, split
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided into 4 pats

If you have dug the clams yourself, watch out for shells that have been punctured or broken by the clam hoe, discarding these and any clams that are not closed. Wash the rest well in seawater and bring them back covered with clean, wet seaweed. In the kitchen, whether the clams are dug or bought, rinse them off in cold running water, scrubbing each with a vegetable brush.

Toss the wet seaweed (if you have it) into a pot and add a few more tablespoons of water. If you have no seaweed, put in half a cup of water instead. Add the clams, cover the pot, and put over high heat. As soon as the water boils, reduce the heat to low and steam the clams until all have opened. Remove the pot from the heat at once. With a pair of tongs, transfer the clams to a bowl. When they are cool enough to handle, remove them from their shells. Toss out the seaweed (if any), combining any liquid remaining in the pot with the broth in the bowl. Strain this through a few layers of cheesecloth or a paper coffee filter, or just pour it off carefully, leaving the grit behind.

Pull off the black neck caps and discard. Detach the soft bellies from the necks and reserve separately. Chop the necks and the tough membrane into small pieces. Fry the salt pork in a large pot until it has rendered some fat and begun to brown. Add the chopped onion and continue to fry until the onion is soft and the pork crisp. (If the pork is lean or only a small amount is used, it may be necessary to add a little butter to keep the onion from burning.) Measure the amount of broth and add enough water (or bottled clam juice) to make a generous 2 cups. Add this to the pot with the salt pork and onion and bring to a simmer. Add the potatoes and cook until they are still firm but done. Stir the milk into the chowder and season to taste with salt and pepper. Heat to simmering again before adding the chopped clam meat and the clam bellies. Do not let the chowder boil. Let this continue to cook at the barest simmer for another 2 or 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Clam chowder is best if, at this point, it is aged for an hour or so, kept warm (but not hot) on the back of the stove (or in a warm oven). Just before serving, reheat the chowder until it begins to steam (remember that it may curdle if it even gets near boiling.) Split and toast the crackers while the chowder reheats, then float these and a pat of butter in each bowl when the chowder is served.

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