The first weekend of October was a golden weekend: sunshine poured down like balm onto trees turning tawny yellow, glancing off the curves of each singular leaf that floated down. I could not stop gazing at autumn gilding the world in front me.
Then the balance tipped. Monday morning the temperature dropped and the heavens opened and suddenly we’d begun the long slide towards winter. It will be seven months until I’m warm enough again. I came home from my morning walk dripping wet and dreaming of hot soups, hot chocolate, and hot water bottles.
The fastest, easiest, and most luxuriously satisfying soup to come out of a kitchen caught unawares by cold weather is clam chowder. Let us not belabor the semantics: chowders fall under the general heading of Soup. I am inclined to think of them as the bisque of stew. Creamy and hearty, brothy and chunky, chowders are perfect for those rainy evenings when autumn has betrayed you and winter lurks around the corner. (But I’m not bitter about it. Not very.) And if you are willing to exchange perfection for expedience, a transaction with which every home cook must be familiar, you can have a bowl of chowder in just about half an hour.
The first and most obvious hurdle is the clams. Fresh clams are not to be had in central Pennsylvania. If I insisted on them, I would never be able to enjoy clam chowder. My choices are the sad dying shipped-in clams, the frozen clam meat, and the humble, rubbery canned clam. Let us dismiss the clams imported from New England immediately; they are too much work for a weeknight. (If you have more time than I, and wish to begin with your own clam broth, I salute you and I must direct you to a different recipe.) I use the frozen clam meat when I am making chowder for guests. When I’m in a hurry on a weeknight, and am only feeding my long-suffering husband, I use the tins of clams and the bottles of clam juice that wait in the back of my pantry. Despite the source of the starring ingredient, the result bears no resemblance to canned clam chowder.
In addition to a star ingredient, I have a secret one. Many clam chowders originally contained salt pork, which can be hard to find now; many recipes substitute bacon. But bacon adds meaningfully to the cooking time. I keep my rendered bacon fat in a jar in my refrigerator, and this is just one of the many uses I find for it.
As for the rest, chowders are variable according to taste: the classic New England clam chowder is milky; Rhode Island clam chowder is clear; Manhattan clam chowder has a vivid red and slightly acidic tomatoey broth, often with herbs added; and as we proceed down the coastline, New Jersey clam chowder is inexplicably gussied up with Old Bay seasoning and asparagus; southern clam chowders tend to contain hot sauce; as far south as Florida, a tomato broth with hot peppers is used and I doubt whether diners can discern the taste of clams at all. But here we are concerned with the classic New England variation of chowder, not because it surpasses the dish’s other regional variations, but because it has superceded them in the consciousness of the non-clamming regions. I like a lush, fish-forward version of chowder, and so that is what this recipe makes.
Cupboard Clam Chowder
A nice Dollop of Bacon Fat
2 Medium Onions
4 Medium Potatoes (red is better, but any kind will do)
2 8-oz. Bottles of Clam Juice
20-oz. to 25-oz. Canned Clams, drained and the liquid reserved (I like to use a variety of sizes: minced, chopped, and whole)
3/4 cup Cream
1 Tbsp Potato Starch or Flour
Salt and pepper to taste
Put the bacon fat in a pot and turn the burner up a bit higher than medium. While the fat melts, chop the onions; then add them to the pot. While the onions are turning translucent, chop the potatoes into bite-sized chunks; then add them. Shake the bottles of clam juice before you pour them in, and add the liquid from the canned clams, too. Cover the pot and let the potatoes cook until they are done to your liking. The remaining ingredients – the clams themselves, the cream, and the potato starch – should not be boiled. Reduce the heat to low and add the clams first, until they are heated through.
To thicken the chowder, I prefer the simplicity of potato flour. Sprinkle a tablespoon lightly on top of the broth and stir gently; it will thicken slightly, very quickly. If you want thicker chowder, sprinkle more. (If you have no potato flour on hand, oyster crackers or Saltines in the bowl are likewise easy, while a flour slurry or a beurre manie added with the clams gives you more control and a neater result. Even better: try a baconfat manie!) Pour in the cream last, stirring gently until the chowder is heated through.
Every ingredient here is flexible: you can adjust potatoes, clams, juice, cream, and thickener to achieve your own favorite variation of chowder. You can even add hot sauce, if that is what your heart desires. A caution: you will have noticed that I have said nothing about when to salt. The bacon and the clams are salty enough for me, and I encourage you to taste before adding any more.
Next on my list of creamy, fishy soups: Cullen Skink!