I was visiting Boston this past weekend and in search of the best Chowda. I found some good chowder and one I liked best. I did my best to take some home (like only 3 spoonfuls left) so I could recreate it or get close to it. I can taste the difference, but I came very close.
One thing I noticed off the bat was the freshness of the clams. They were tender and added a lot of flavor to the soup. The second thing was the treatment of the onions. Perfect. Finally the thickness. How important it is for a nice thick chowder. Rich, very, but nothing beats New England Clam Chowder in my book. I could eat it all day. Good thing I don’t else my waistline would really suffer.
The great thing about Clam Chowder, is that it is great for a summer clam bake or what is better on a cold rainy New England day or on a nice cool night, than a pot of hot creamy rich chowder.
I have made clam chowder and corn chowder (great substitute if you do not want the clams) many times. It is always good, but I needed that little extra something to push it over the top. And it does not take very long to make, unlike a good tomato or veggie soup where you need to build the flavors such as roasting vegetables and simmering over a longer period of time.
The basic flavors are simple, and there are ways you can make a lighter version. I will put notes next to items and at the bottom where you can leave out or substitute and still make a great soup.. just won’t be the prize winning full calorie chowder! But that is OK too. It is all about experimentation and finding what fits for your taste buds and dietary needs.
Another chowder I came across was a corn chowder, not the type of corn chowder I have made (basically substituting corn for the clam, and broth for the clam juice), this chowder was made by pureeing the corn as the soup base then server with two lobster claws. It was good, but did not satisfy me in the way of the typical creamy chowder base. I bet it could have been better if they used a lobster stock or base to add more lobster flavoring… Which reminds me, I have a great Lobster bisque recipe as well.. That will be another post.
Does the potato matter? Yes it does, however, use what you have. For this run, I happened to have russet. So I used them. In general, you want a potato lower in starch for two reasons: 1.) you can better control the thickness of the soup and amount of flour added; 2.) It will hold its shape better after cooking. Potatoes too starchy can fall apart easier making mush, not soup. The recommended potatoes are: Yukon gold potato, Yellow Finn potato, red-skinned potato, white round potato, and purple potato. Pick one. I leave the peel on when making for me, but you can certainly remove the peel. Leaving the peel on saves time, and adds nutrients. It never bothers me, traditionally, the skin is removed. If you don’t want it, by all means remove the peel.
Some people pre-cook/blanch the potatoes before making the soup. Cutting them small, and adding raw to the soup allows the clam juice to better penetrate and flavor the potatoes.
On to the CHOWDA:
** This makes about 4 – 5 quarts (16 – 20 cups) of soup, you can cut in 1/2 if desired.
3 pieces of thick sliced bacon, diced small (you can omit, but replace the missed bacon fat with about 2 TBS olive oil)
1 – 1.5 cups Fresh shucked clams (some stores offer them fresh-shucked for you (fresh frozen is ok) – otherwise, you will need to steam them first, then shuck and chop), chopped, try to remove any grit, but retain any juices. Straining the liquid through a Cheese Cloth is helpful for this. You can use canned clams if you wish. The flavor is always better using fresh ingredients, but they may not always be available or fit into ones’ budget.
1 large onion (yellow or sweet), small dice
1 med shallot, small dice
1 cup celery, small fine dice
2 stalks fresh Thyme, or 1 tsp dried
2 stalks fresh Oregano, or 1 tsp dried
1 LB Potatoes (about 2 – 3 large), diced small 1/4 inch cubes (peeled optional) the smaller size will decrease cooking time for the potato. Place the potatoes in cold water until ready to use. This will prevent browning or discoloring.
4 cups clam juice
1/2 cup all purpose flour (if reducing butter, reduce flour)
1 1/2 stick of butter (you can reduce the amount by 1/2 or use a substitute like smart balance)
2 cups heavy cream (you can substitute light cream, fat free half and half or skim milk – you can mix and match. I would not use only fat free. You can add more flour to make it thicker, but you may lose some flavor – use up to 6 – 8 cups of liquid).
4 cups half and half
2 cups light cream
2 Bay leaves
1 tsp of sweet paprika
Salt (Sea or Kosher Salt)
Pepper, I use black pepper and don’t mind the black specs. However, if you wish to avoid the black specs, you can use white pepper. Just keep in mind that white pepper is hotter than black pepper, so you may want to reduce the amount you use.
1.) In a large stock pot ( 6 – 8 quarts), cook the diced bacon over medium heat until they are crispy. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon bits to drain on a paper towel, reserve the fat in the pan. Depending on the amount of fat, you may wish to drain some of (reserve in a glass container, as you may need to add more – or save in the fridge for a future use). You will nee about 2 TBS of the fat left in the pan.
2.) While the bacon is cooking, prepare the clams. If you bought fresh clams (with shell), you will need to steam them and shuck them. If you purchased fresh pre-shucked clams, drain the juice into a separate bowl reserving the juice, chop the clams. Next, using a second bowl, strain the juice through a cheese cloth to remove any grit or impurities. If using canned clams, separate the juice from the clams, reserving the juice.
3. ) Reduce the heat to med/med-low and add the onions, celery, thyme, paprika, pepper and oregano in the pan with the bacon fat. Sweat the ingredients (it basically means to cook low and slow). This is one time you do NOT want caramelized onions. Nice and translucent is good. Stir often, if you start to see any of the onions of celery to brown on the edge, turn down the heat. They are done when soft and almost clear and just the slightest give when you bite into it. About 20 – 25 minutes.
4. ) Add the potatoes, and toss and cook for about 3 minutes. Add the bay leaves, clam juice and any reserved clam juice and bring to a simmer about 5 – 7 minutes. If there is not enough clam juice to cover the potatoes, you can add water.
5. ) In a separate pan, melt the butter and and add the flour (making a basic roux). Stir continuously over med-low heat until smooth. It should take about 3 minutes.
6.) Add the half and half and heavy cream and the bacon bits, stir until well mixed gently simmering for 15 – 20 minutes. Stir often to prevent burning and be sure to have the heat on med-low. Cream burns fast then there goes the neighborhood.
7. ) Remove the bay leaves, herb stems and any large herb leaves. Discard.
8.) Taste. Adjust salt/pepper. You may need more salt than you think, as both potatoes and cream dilute the salt. Figure about 1+ TBS of salt. But add a little at a time and let mix for a minute, re-taste and add more if needed.
9. ) Add the flour mixture (if you want a thinner consistency, use 1/4 – 1/2 of the flour mixture) to the stock and stir until mixed and the stock is thick and comes back to a simmer. This happens quick and this is meant to be a very thick soup. If too thick, you can add water or additional cream, 1/2 cup at a time until you reach desired consistency.
10. ) You are just about done. Add in the clams and let cook another 3 minutes and serve. It is very important to add the clams at the last minute, as cooking too long makes them rubbery. If you are not going to eat right away (ie: freeze for later), add the clams, turn off the heat and let cool. This will help keep the clams fresh and not over cooked.
That is it. Enjoy!
Options to reduce calories, make other substitutions, or make vegetarian/vegan:
Bacon – omit or use vegetarian/vegan bacon; use olive oil for the sweating of the vegetables
Cream – use part fat free half and half, skim milk or other dairy substitute. Do not use a flavored soy (like vanilla) as it will throw off the flavor
Clams – use 2 – 3 cups fresh cooked corn. It is great to even grill corn on the cob, then slicing the corn off the cob and adding that in step 4.
Clam Juice – use a low fat, low sodium chicken or vegetable broth
Potatoes – use a firm tofu; use zucchini, eggplant and/or summer squash in step 4
Butter – it kills me to say this.. but you can reduce the amount of butter or use a healthier substitute. It will impact your roux. If you substitute, you can add the “fat” to the vegetables when they are ready, and sprinkle with flour.
Flour – If you do not wish to use flour, then you can omit. Just understand you will have a thinner soup. That is fine if that is what you like. You can also thicken by letting it simmer longer to reduce after step 9 and before step 10.
Finely diced carrots, zucchini, summer squash to step 3.
Tabasco (just a dash or two) to step 8 for a little kick
You can garnish with fresh parsley, thyme, oregano and or fresh clams.