Now that Memorial Day, the official gateway to summer, has passed, we can look ahead to the promise of long sunny days spent at the beach. For me, this vision is not complete without a bowl of clam chowder. Blame it on my New England roots, but slurping down a bowl of steaming creamy chowder is right up there with building sandcastles and slathering on sunscreen in the summertime; the chowder is best consumed near a beach or perched at a picnic table in a fishing harbor, accompanied by buckets of steamed clams and butter-slathered corn-on-the-cob.
For a number of years, I lived far from my East Coast roots, and when summer rolled around, I had access to a beach but not clam chowder. The only way I could cure my craving was to learn to make it myself.
Chowder (or "chowdah," as we say in New England) is actually quite easy to make. It's a simple concoction of milk, cream, potatoes and clams. The key is to create a smoky base to the soup with bacon and to add a little thickness with a roux, which is simply flour mixed into the fat from the bacon. I take a few liberties with the vegetables. Potatoes and onion are standard, but I often add leeks, celery root or even spinach to the mix. When you are selecting clams, be sure to choose the smallest ones you can get your hands on, such as littlenecks, middlenecks or Manila clams.
Prep time: 50 minutes
Total time: 50 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
2 slices bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium leek, white part only, rinsed well and thinly sliced
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups water or chicken stock, or more as needed
1/2 pound small fingerling potatoes, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/2 small celery root, peeled, cut into 1/4-inch cubes, about 1 cup
3 sprigs fresh thyme, plus extra for garnish
1 bay leaf
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
12 Manila or middleneck clams, or 24 littleneck clams
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Fry the bacon in the oil in a large pot over medium heat until the fat is nearly rendered, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the leek and onion and saute until softened, 3 to 4 minutes.
Sprinkle the flour into the pot, and cook until very lightly colored, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes. Slowly whisk in the water or stock, stirring to blend the flour. Add the potatoes, celery root, and enough stock or water to cover the vegetables. Add the thyme and bay leaf and bring to a simmer. Partially cover the pot and cook until the potatoes and celery root are tender, about 20 minutes.
Add the milk, cream and clams, making sure the clams are submerged. If not, add a little more milk. Partially cover the pot and simmer over medium heat until the clams open, stirring occasionally, 6 to 8 minutes. Discard any unopened clams. Add the salt and pepper and taste for seasoning. Ladle into bowls and garnish with fresh thyme. Serve immediately.
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