During a long and lazy sea-side vacation, you get to know your preferences for things like clam chowder. During the trip I'm on now to Northern California, the aha moment came when I drilled down into my chowder-eating soul and realized that there are two things I don't like about the usual bowl: its gloppy texture, and its chewy, overcooked shell-less nuggets of clam meat. The gloppy texture tells me there's flour in there unnecessarily weighing down the rest of the ingredients. And without a shell, the clams not only disappear into the thick marshy broth, they also raise suspicions of coming from a can.
Here's an alternative: a flour-less, fresh clam chowder.
This is a recipe I adapted from Hog Island Oyster, where I've been spending a lot of time lately since it's spitting distance from where we stay. The base can be made ahead (up to one day) and kept chilled. The spiciness is optional, but I think adds another layer of flavor, and the chili paste colors the milky white broth beautifully. (I use Asian chili paste such as Thai Kitchen Roasted Red Chili Paste.) Add the clams at the very last minute, and you'll taste the difference between a fresh bowl of clam chowder, and that other stuff. You may never go back.
Fresh Clam Chowder
4 pounds small, raw Manila clams in the shell
1 pound red potatoes (about 3 medium), chopped into 1/2-inch bite-size cubes
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 pound pancetta, cubed or bacon, sliced
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
1 stalk celery, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 large carrots, peeled and thinly sliced into rounds
1 to 3 tablespoons chili paste, to taste
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 cups heavy cream
Freshly ground black pepper
Italian flat leaf parsley, for garnish
Place the clams in a colander and rinse thoroughly under cold running water. Discard any clams with broken or open shells. Allow the clams to drain in the sink while you prepare your stock base.
In a large stock pot, bring about 5 cups of water to a boil and cook the potatoes until al dente, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the potatoes with a slotted spoon, but do not drain off the water.
While the potatoes are boiling, in a second large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil and thyme over low heat. Add the pancetta to the oil and thyme and cook, stirring often, about 5 minutes, making sure not to burn the bacon. Add the red onion, celery and garlic, and cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are translucent, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the carrots and chili paste, and cook until the carrots soften slightly, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the potatoes and 3 cups of potato water and stir to combine.
Keep this chowder base warm over low heat, or refrigerate for up to 1 day. When ready to finish the soup, warm the chowder base over low heat.
When ready to serve, cook the clams. Working in batches, place enough clams to fill but not crowd the bottom of a heavy-bottomed sauté pan over medium heat. Ladle 1 cup of the chowder base on top and cover the pan. Simmer for about 4 minutes, or until the majority of clams open. Pick out any clams that have not opened. Transfer cooked clams to the pot with the chowder base, and continue cooking in batches until clams are all cooked.
Add the milk and cream to the pot and bring the chowder to a simmer. Ladle individual servings into large soup bowls.
Serve with cracked black pepper and chopped parsley.
(Images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan)