Portland, Oregon, circa 1981. My parents and I are dining at a swanky hotel restaurant. I order clam chowder and am served something that can only be described as nectar of the gods.
It was thick. It was rich. It was creamy. In fact, it may have been pure cream for all I know. You could tell it wasn’t just thickened with starch or flour, but with cream. Lots and lots of cream. But the flavor wasn’t bland, it was… divine.
Since then, I noticed the trend was to serve really thick clam chowder. The canned versions were much goopier than before, and restaurants everywhere were serving clam flavored paste with monster chunks of starchy potatoes. As you can see by my descriptor words, I was not impressed.
I have spent years trying to find a suitable replacement for driving the 12 hours to get that same clam chowder, to no avail. Finally I just decided to make my own. So there!
I won’t claim this recipe is the same divine substance that I had so many years ago, but I know it’s pretty darned good. It has taken several years of tweaking and adjusting, and it is now at a point that I follow my own recipe exactly. That almost never happens, otherwise. Anyone I serve it to raves about it and asks for more (except this one who just doesn’t like clams and picks them out!). I think that’s a strong enough recommendation.
Clam Chowder Recipe (the only one you’ll ever need!)
I like to start with fresh, live clams. This does add more time, but the flavor difference makes it worthwhile. However, I have also provided instructions for using canned clams. You can also break this up over weeks to even months by using the “task manager” sequence below. I seldom make this soup all in one sitting, so why should you if you don’t have time? I prepped the clams two months before finishing the rest. Work smarter, not harder!
- Clams can be prepped at any time before putting the soup together. Shucked clams and the steaming liquid can be kept in the refrigerator for a couple of days, or the freezer for a very long time. The liquid can be strained before or after freezing. Just have both defrosted before using in the soup.
- Bacon can be prepped at any time before putting the soup together. Both bacon and the reserved fat can be stored separately just like above.
- The roux must be made at some point after the bacon, but can be stored in the refrigerator for several days before using in the soup. So you could prep the bacon, then make the roux, then store both. Be sure to save some of the bacon fat for sautéing the onions.
- Vegetables can be prepped several days in advance, then stored in the refrigerator. Keep onions separate from the potatoes and celery, but those two can be put together.
For preparing live clams (instructions for using canned clams are below):
- 4-5 lbs. fresh live clams in the shell
- 1 c. water
- 1 c. white wine (I love the cheap jug Chablis)
For the soup:
- 2 c. chopped prepared clams (either the fresh ones from above, or canned)
- 2 c. strained broth from preparing your clams (or liquid from your canned clams added to 1/2 c. white wine and enough bottled clam juice to make 2 cups of liquid)
- 1/2 lb. good quality fresh, smoked bacon, cut into small pieces. It is easiest to do this with a really sharp, thin knife, or to partially freeze it before cutting. Do not use low fat!!!
- 1 c. diced yellow or white onion
- 1 Tbsp. finely chopped garlic
- splash of white wine, as needed
- 3 c. diced potatoes (Use a firm variety, not a baking type. I like red potatoes for this.)
- 2 c. diced celery
- 2 tsp. mixed herbs like McCormick’s Italian seasoning (or make a balanced blend of thyme, oregano, basil, and sage)
- 4 c. water
For the roux:
- reserved bacon fat, should be about 1/3 cup, add olive oil if more is needed
- 1/3 c. all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 c. whole milk
- 1 1/2 c. heavy cream (oh yeah!)
- 1 tsp. mixed herbs (same as for the soup, above)
To prepare the clams (skip to the soup prep instructions if using canned clams): first pick over the clams and remove any that are dead. Shellfish go bad very quickly after they die, so you don’t want to use them. Clams that are open need to be squeezed shut and held for a second or two, then let go. If they pop back open quickly, toss them! If any are really badly broken up, assume they are dead and toss those, too.
Place the clams in a colander and rinse under running water while rubbing them around. This is to get rid of as much grime on their shells as possible. You will be straining out the steaming liquid later, so don’t worry about scrubbing them spotlessly clean.
Place the 1 c. water and 1 c. white wine into a shallow pan and bring to a boil. Gently scoop some of the clams into the boiling liquid and wait until they pop open. Once they open, gently splash a little of the liquid into the open clam and then scoop the whole clam out with a slotted spoon. Place the clams into a bowl and repeat this process until all your clams are steamed. Add more water and wine in 1/2 cup quantities, as needed, to keep the liquid levels up. Save all of the liquid after all the clams are done!
Once all the clams are done and they have cooled enough to handle them, it’s shucking time! Using a metal teaspoon, scrape out all the clam meat into a clean bowl. Set the shells aside (I put mine into my compost, as they are a great slow-release calcium source! They take a while to break down, but this helps prevent blossom-end rot in many fruits and vegetables.) Any juice that drained to the bottom of the bowl should be added back to the liquid in the pan.
Line a strainer with a damp muslin cloth, or a few layers of damp cheese cloth, and place over a container. Pour in all the steaming liquid from the clams. This will remove any grit or shell fragments from the clams. Avoid the temptation to use coffee filters as they will drain painfully slowly. Save all this liquid.
To prepare the soup:
In a large stock pot, put the bacon pieces. Turn heat to high until the bacon starts to sizzle, then turn the heat to medium. Cook the bacon until it is crispy and the fat has been rendered out. Strain out the bacon pieces onto a plate lined with paper towel, and nibble on only a few. Pour out the fat into a heat proof container and return a few Tbsp. to the pot. Keep the rest of the fat for later.
Add the onions to the bacon fat in the pot and turn the heat to medium. Cook the onions until they start to turn translucent. You may need to add a splash of white wine to help deglaze the pot from the bacon remnants, otherwise you will be left with a burnt mess! Add the garlic and cook for a couple of minutes more.
Add the potatoes, celery, cooked bacon, clam liquid, and 4 cups water. If you had a little more clam liquid than the two cups, use it all and reduce the remaining water by the same amount. If you had less, add more water to make the liquid total 6 cups. If using canned clams, use the amounts listed in the ingredients list and the 4 cups of water. Add the 2 tsp. of the mixed seasonings. Bring the contents to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook until the potatoes are almost tender. This will be about 15 minutes or so, depending on how large your potato pieces are.
To prepare the roux: while the vegetables are cooking, make a roux with the remaining ingredients. Add the bacon fat to a pot, and stir in the flour until smooth. Place on the stove at medium-low heat and slowly add in the milk a little at a time, whisking constantly until smooth. Continue to heat until it thickens, constantly whisking to avoid scorching. Add in the remaining seasonings, and continue to whisk. Slowly add in the heavy cream, and whisk some more. Continue to heat until very thick, constantly whisking. Remove from heat and set aside. If you are making your roux in advance, be sure to warm it up again before continuing to the next step.
To finish the soup: add the roux to your stock pot once the vegetables are tender and gently mix in. Keep the heat at a simmer. Chop your clams into small pieces and add them to the soup (if you have a little more or less clams than called for, don’t worry, just add them!). Allow to cook for another 10 minutes at a gentle simmer.
This soup is best served hot, and go San Francisco style with a hearty chunk of sourdough bread. You won’t regret it at all!!