Ever the proud Yankee, I’ve been slowly whittling down my New England clam chowder recipe for a long time… and I don’t mean that thick, floured goop you think I’m talking about. I didn’t say clam gravy. I said clam chowder, dammit. True chowder. The stuff the old school, New England settlers made. It’s been one of my absolute favorite things to make since well before I realized that it paired so well with single malt Scotch.
This dish plays well with any single malts that have an oceanic quality to them, so Talisker, Highland Park, Jura, or any Islay you can think of, all drink very nicely with it. Each has their own nuance to bring to the table, but the iodine from the peat and the phenolic brine from the clams blend into one another seamlessly. The unctuous creaminess of a well made chowder can stand up to the high proof, and the smokiness of whisky practically begs for a strong mouthful of ocean. This is a downright sacramental experience.
Chowder’s is a tragic story, though. Somewhere along the way, chefs trained in the French style stopped making chowder and started making bechamel garnished with chowder constituents, loosened up with canned clam juice. The texture and flavor was similar enough that not many people could tell the difference (or cared), and soon, even people from New England began to associate their historic culinary contribution with this new, pasty impostor. Real New England clam chowder does not use flour to thicken it. It relies on potatoes for thickness and milk or cream for it’s velvety smooth mouthfeel.
Making it from scratch is a lot of work, but other than the time you commit, the process is very easy. The most important step is making your clam stock. Toss that bottled crap out the window; it’s for lazy dullards. Coaxing nectar from clams using gentle steam is about as simple as it gets and bottled clam juice will not give you the same results.
Traditional clam stock is made by steaming clams in a small amount of water. I prefer to use a little corn stock. Real clam stock is also very salty, so corn sugars add some complimentary sweetness and help to mitigate the saltiness of these ocean dwelling bivalves.
Corn stock is one of those secret ingredients that will give your recipes an extra boost which your guests won’t quite be able to put their finger on. Each summer I vacuum seal and save all my corn cobs in the freezer for use throughout the year, but even crappy winter, supermarket corn has a cob that can make a decent stock. For convenience you can even make a large batch of corn stock and freeze it for later use.
New England Clam Chowder (makes about four servings)
- 4 corn cobs
- 3 pints filtered water
- 4 lbs 4 oz littleneck clams
- 4 oz diced salt pork
- 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 small (5 oz) onion, diced
- 1 large (2.5 oz) shallot, diced
- 1 long stalk (2 oz) celery, washed and diced
- 2 large cloves garlic, minced
- 2 lbs red potatoes, peeled and diced
- 2 bay leaves
- 3-4 sprigs thyme, stripped and stems discarded
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- Cover corn cobs with 3 pints filtered water. Bring to boil, reduce to medium and slow-boil until reduced to 1 cup, about an hour. Strain and pour hot stock into a large pot with a vegetable steamer basket. Cover so the stock boils more easily in step three. Discard cobs and solids.
- As corn stock boils, brush clams well under cool water. Discard any that won’t close when you tap them. Gently tap two clams together to check for cracked shells and add all solid ones to the steamer basket in your pot. Discard cracked clams.
- Cover pot and steam over high until clams open. As they open, carefully remove them from the pot with tongs so they don’t overcook, and place them in an uncovered bowl to cool. After five minutes of active boiling they should start opening, but it may take up to fifteen minutes. Throw away any that don’t open after that.
- Remove pot from heat, strain the clam stock in the bottom through a cheese cloth to remove shell fragments and set broth aside.
- Once clams are cool enough to handle, scrape them out of their shell and place them in a bowl making sure to capture all the liquids that accumulate. Strain liquids through cheese cloth and add to clam stock. Discard shells and rinse out pot.
- Roughly chop clam meat, paying close attention for errant shell fragments that may be stuck to the clams. Cover clams in bowl with plastic wrap, reserving any juices and set in fridge until ready to use.
- Render salt pork in the pot over medium heat until crispy. Discard the excess fat.
- Add butter, onion, shallot, celery, bay leaves, and thyme to pot. Saute until soft and onions are translucent, about 10 minutes, working up the brown bits from the bottom as the vegetables release their moisture. Remove from heat and set aside
- In a separate pot, add potatoes and cover with reserved clam stock. If it doesn’t quite cover it, add some filtered water or whole milk to top it off. Bring to a gentle boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes, until potatoes are soft.
- Ladle out half of the potatoes into the onion mix, leaving all the liquid in the pot with the rest of the potatoes. Puree potatoes and stock with a stick blender until thick, creamy and all lumps are gone. This is where all the chowders thickening power comes from; over worked potatoes.
- Add thickened stock, cream, a few grinds of black pepper and chopped clam meat to the pot with the onion mix. Gently turn all ingredients together. If the mix is too thick or to salty just add some extra cream or whole milk to taste. Heat over low, stirring frequently for five minutes to meld flavors.
- Serve immediately, or cool pot in an ice bath and leave covered in the refrigerator for flavors to meld more overnight. Heat gently just until warmed through, garnish with chives or crackers, and serve with an oceanic single malt.
If you’re feeling adventurous, try garnishing your bowl with a few drops (I said drops, not a splash) of single malt. While this is a great pairing with any oceanic flavored whisky, even without the whisky garnish or pairing, this is one delicious chowder.