NOTE: An updated version of this recipe appears in my cookbook, The Ancestral Table.
Chowders get their name from the French word “chaudière” (kettle, pot), which in turn is derived from the Latin “caldāria” (cauldron). There’s quite a rivalry regarding the white, creamy New England Clam Chowder and the clear, tomato-based Manhattan Clam Chowder – in fact, a bill was introduced into the Maine legislature in 1939 attempting to make it illegal to add tomatoes to clam chowder.
Here’s another interesting fact – it wasn’t until the Second Vatican Council during the 1960s that Catholics were permitted to eat meat on Fridays (the abstinence period has been reduced to Lent now). To provide a seafood option to Catholics, restaurants across the country served clam chowder on Fridays, and the tradition remains today.
Creating a hearty, traditional wheat-free chowder is quite a challenge, since they are usually thickened with flour or soup crackers. Using starchy russet potatoes would naturally thicken the chowder, but also leave you with disintegrated potatoes. And then it struck me: I can cook the chowder using sturdier red potatoes, and thicken it with potato starch – leaving us with the best of both worlds.
5-7 lbs live clams (quahogs, littlenecks, middlenecks, or cherrystones)
2 6.5oz cans minced clams (water retained)
4 medium red potatoes, chopped into bite-sized chunks
1 medium onion, chopped finely
6oz uncured/nitrate-free bacon (6 strips), chopped
3 cups water
1 cup heavy cream
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
1 tsp ground black pepper
3 tbsp potato (or arrowroot) starch
I make my clam chowder using a combination of live clams (for the chunks) and cans of minced clams (for the overall taste). Live clams go by many names (quahogs, littlenecks, middlenecks, and cherrystones are the most common), and the names usually just refer to the size of the clam. You don’t want them too big, because they’ll taste metallic; anything smaller than 3″ across should be just fine.
Scrub the clams with a brush and rinse them thoroughly with cold water. Place them in a pot with the 3 cups of water. Steam on high heat for about 4 minutes, until the clams are just slightly open. You don’t want to cook them fully yet – that’s for later.
With a pair of tongs, remove the clams and transfer them to a bowl to cool. Make sure that you pour out all the liquid and retain it, setting it aside for later.
Once the clams are cool enough, pry the shells open and remove the clams (cut them out with a paring knife if needed). Chop the clams into thirds and mix them with the canned clams. Add the extra liquid from the canned clams to the rest of the liquid that you set aside earlier.
Cook the chopped bacon on medium heat until it becomes crispy, then add the onion and sauté until the onion is translucent, about 6 minutes. Pour the bacon/onions into a pot and add the potatoes, bay leaf, and clam water (don’t pour the very last portion of it into the pot if it looks gritty). Simmer for 15-20 minutes on med/low heat, until the potatoes are tender.
Remove the bay leaf and stir in the cream, clams, parsley, and black pepper. Allow it to simmer for a couple minutes, stirring often. In a small bowl, mix the potato starch with a little water and stir it into the chowder. Continue to simmer and stir for a few minutes until it thickens. If it’s not thick enough, give it time – it’ll get there.
Keep in mind that because this chowder is thickened with potato starch, it will lose its thickness if you allow it to cool (arrowroot starch, however, does a better job of staying thick after cooling). Be sure to serve it immediately, and keep it warm in case anyone wants a second helping!
(featured on Sunday Night Soup Night)