Over the last twenty-five years, I’ve made countless (OK, I just counted, 173) visits to the USA, and one dish that I always looked forward to eating there was Clam Chowder. America may not be famed for fine dining, but when it comes to comfort food, it excels. When it’s cold (and boy, does it get bitter in New England) everyone enjoys soup. And chowder is a soup and a comfort meal-in-a-bowl par excellence. Thick, creamy, fishy, instantly nourishing – I love it. It’s on menus in restaurants all over the country, but I found it to be particularly good in two places on opposite coasts where I made a lot of visits – Olympia, in Washington State on the West Pacific coast, and Boston on the East Atlantic side. What they both have in common is a big seafood industry and – in season – plentiful clams.
When you find chowder on the menu in Olde England, it’s just not the same. Maybe it’s just because you can’t get the clams, or at least not the same kind, but I don’t think it’s that – having looked at recipes, it’s more likely to be that cheaper ingredients are used or that the chef has never tasted the real thing. The key ingredient is the clams. Inside their shells, they’re tiny specks of flesh – you could never get fat feasting on clams! – but, when cooked from raw, they release the most amazing flavour juice. That’s what it is all about. If you can’t get clams, or recoil from the price (they’re expensive), use mussels instead, or go 50-50. Mussels have good flavour too, but just not as powerful as clams.
I’ve done my best to recreate it with European ingredients, and it’s proved to be one of my more requested dishes. It’s a really simple recipe – it just takes a bit of time, but it can be prepared up to 24 hours in advance, so you won’t be slaving over a hot stove while your family and guests are enjoying themselves elsewhere.
INGREDIENTS (serves 4)
1kg live Clams or Mussels or a mix of both
100g bacon lardons or streaky unsmoked bacon (rind removed and chopped small)
150g shallots or 1 large onion or equivalent
800g potatoes (ideally 400g waxy red-skins like King Edward, 400g floury whites like Maris Piper)
1 litre fish stock (or 1 litre water with half a fish stock cube dissolved in it)
2 heaped dessertspoons flour
200ml white wine
200ml whipping cream
2 bay leaves
Pepper to season
Cook the live shellfish on the same day as purchase, if possible. If not, clams can be stored at the bottom of the fridge for up to 3 days in an open dish covered with damp paper towels to stop them drying out (do NOT store in water, salt or otherwise!).
For clams – Fill a bowl or saucepan with cold water, dissolve a teaspoon of salt in it, and put the clams in, and leave for between 1 and 3 hours, during which time the clams will disgorge any sand and grit they may harbour in their shells. When ready to cook, drain off the water and any sediment.
For mussels – wash and pick over the shells, removing any seaweed or rope debris with a sharp knife. No need to soak them.
Put the clams and/or mussels into a large saucepan with about half of the fish stock. Cover, bring to the boil and simmer for around 5 minutes, by which time the shells will have opened. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
Put the bacon lardons in a frying pan over a low heat. Stir regularly as they release their fat and begin to brown. Do not allow to burn.
Meanwhile, chop the shallots or onion as finely as you can. Add to the bacon, and cook, stirring frequently to prevent burning, until the onion softens, becomes transparent and slightly golden – it’ll take about 10 minutes. If there is not enough fat in the bacon to sweat the onion, add a knob of butter.
Once the bacon and onion mixture is well cooked, add the flour and stir to combine, still over a low heat. Keep stirring for two minutes to cook the flour – the same as making a bechamel sauce. Turn the heat up a little and pour in the white wine, stir it in and keep stirring while the mixture boils to evaporate the alcohol in the wine (yes, I know, shame isn’t it?). Turn off the heat.
Now the clams have cooled enough to handle, first drain off the liquid into a jug or other container – the juice is what you paid for, so do not lose a drop!
Discard any clams or mussels that did not open – that means they were dead on arrival. Pick out the fatter shellfish, and keep them in their shells (just for decoration and to prove to guests you made it with real clams); remove the flesh from the remainder, reserve, and discard the shells. (If you like, you can keep them all in their shells, but they make the chowder difficult to serve).
Filter the clam or mussel juice through a sieve lined with a paper towel (I used one with a purple flower motif, but feel free to use whatever kind you have in the kitchen) to remove any remaining grit and sand.
Add the juice and all the remaining stock to the bacon and onion sauce mix, stir to combine and transfer to a big saucepan (depending on the size of your pans, it may be easier to move the sauce base into the saucepan first). Add the bay leaves. Bring to the boil and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer.
Prepare the potatoes. If they are clear of blemishes, leave the skin on, otherwise (like the ones I used in the pictures) peel them. In any case, cut them into small cubes (about 6mm or a quarter of an inch).
Put half the potatoes – if you have both red and white, the white ones, keep the red ones back – into the soup. Simmer for 20 minutes.
Remove from the heat. Fish out the bay leaves if you can see them. Now, using a handheld mixer or an old-fashioned potato masher, break up the potatoes so that most of them blend into the soup. Do not over-blend – you want the texture to still be lumpy, the idea is just to blend in the floury potatoes.
Add the remaining raw potatoes, return the pan to the heat and bring to the boil again, then simmer for another ten minutes. Turn off the heat. Add the cooked shellfish, put a lid on the pan and leave it for at least another 10 minutes.
Now check if the last potato cubes you added are fully cooked. If not, turn the heat back on, bring to the boil and cook for a little longer until the potato cubes are done but not disintegrating. Turn off the heat.
Finally, stir in the cream. Check for seasoning – it is very unlikely you will need to add salt (especially if you used a stock cube rather than natural fish stock), but pepper will definitely enhance the flavour.
If you are not ready to eat now, you can keep the chowder for up to 24 hours (move into the fridge as soon as it has cooled sufficiently).
In America, the classic way of serving clam chowder is in a hollowed-out individual white cottage loaf. I haven’t seen those for years in England (and forget it in Spain, where I took these photographs), but perhaps you have a baker near you who sells them. If so, take four loaves (one per person), slice the top off, hollow out the inside and serve the chowder in that.
Americans break up saltine crackers and stir them in to the chowder; there may be rare places you can buy them in Europe, but I wouldn’t put in too much effort trying to find them. There’s enough carbohydrates in chowder and bread without adding any more – but if you really want, the nearest equivalents are matzos or cream crackers.