Once or twice a month, we toast the end of a work week with dinner at a restaurant. For us, the end of the work week is a Friday night. These outings aren’t formal by any means. Casual family dining with a decent menu (and a bar!) is good for us. Back in the day, a kid’s menu was a huge plus to keep the wee ones happy.
At our favorite restaurants, Friday dinner normally means the “soup of the day” is clam chowder. A true family favorite. If clam chowder is on the menu, it’s pretty much guaranteed that 2 out of 4 of us would add it to our order.
This year I decided I HAD to give clam chowder another try. I took this experiment to heart. I researched recipes for days. I narrowed down the field to three recipes that I would “mash” together…pulling my favorite aspects from each.
All three recipes did have one thing in common. Fresh clams. (My failed attempt at clam chowder had used clams from tin cans.) We have an excellent fish market about 30 minutes or so away from our home and Glenn was to be in that area for a meeting at just the right time. He went off to work with a cooler (even though is was at least 10 degrees below zero outside) and my wish list.And guess what?? NO fresh clams were to be had!
It seems the severe weather blanketing the east coast has severely disrupted delivery of seafood to our fresh lake state. Bummer. But…they did have clams available. Clams that were already set free from their shells. Clams that were already chopped. Clams that, as it turns out, required MUCH less prep work. Clams that were delicious.
Thanks to the knowledgeable staff at the market, we were able to determine that instead of 6 pounds of the in-shell clams, a container of 2 pounds (without the shells) would suffice for my recipe. Bottled clam juice (along with the water the clams were packed in) became a substitute for the broth I would have yielded from cooking the fresh clams.
Bacon is one. A good clam chowder must be garnished with bacon. However, it’s the rendering of the fat from the bacon that is a key ingredient. The veggies are cooked in the bacon fat for depth of flavor.
I like potatoes in my clam chowder. NOT clams in potato chowder! In other words, potatoes are there…they just can’t be the main ingredient of the soup. I ended up with a 50/50 ratio of potatoes to clams.
And finally, the soup has to be creamy and thick. But that doesn’t mean it has to be fattening and totally unhealthy…great flavor and thickness was achieved here using low-fat half and half and a bit of potato starch!
In the end, with the results I achieved, I wouldn’t have done it different. It seems the lack of seafood deliveries saved me labor intensive time in the kitchen! The chowder turned out fabulous. :))
6 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 cups onion, diced
4 celery stalks, diced
1 Tablespoon fresh minced garlic
24 ounces clam juice
2 cups water
2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves (plus more for garnish)
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 Tablespoon Old Bay seasoning (or to taste)
2 pounds clams (total weight after cooked and removed from shells)
3 cups half and half (I used low-fat)
3-5 Tablespoons potato starch (as needed for thickening to taste)
In a stock pot or dutch oven, cook the diced bacon over medium heat until crispy and the fat is rendered. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel lined plate; set aside.
To the same pot, add the onion and celery; cook over medium heat in the bacon fat until the vegetables are soft (about 10 minutes). The goal is to cook the vegetables (or sweat them) without browning or caramelizing, so stir often and reduce heat if necessary. Add the garlic and cook 1 additional minute.
Add the clam juice and water to the pot of vegetables. Bring to a boil over high heat. Add the potatoes, thyme, Old Bay seasoning, salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to medium, cover and cook until the potatoes are tender (the tip of a knife will easily pierce the potato chunks), about 10-12 minutes.
Pour in the half and half when the potatoes are tender. Cook until small bubbles just begin to break the surface of the liquid, about 10 minutes. DO NOT allow to boil, or the half and half will curdle. Reduce heat as needed. Allow to simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
Stir in the clams (and all of their juices) to the pot. Stir frequently until hot. Once again, DO NOT allow the chowder to boil. Adjust burner heat as needed.
Taste the soup. Adjust salt and pepper to your taste. If the soup appears too thin, add potato starch 1 Tablespoon at a time. Stir constantly as the potato starch dissolves. Results will be immediate. Add more potato starch as needed to achieve desired thickness. If soup is too thick, add more half and half, 1/4 cup at a time.
Bowls may be warmed in an oven if desired. Ladle soup in bowls; top with cooked bacon and a pinch or two of fresh thyme leaves. Serve immediately.