“Clam chowder is essentially one of the most indelicate of our national dishes. It is rude, rugged, a food of body and substance – like Irish stew, Scottish haggis, English steak and kidney pie – a worthy ration for the men and women of a pioneer race and for their offspring.”
– Louis P. De Gouy, The Soup Book (Dover, 1949; a new edition is being reissued)
I’m crazy for chowder. But not any: Has to be clam. Has to be New England-style. Other chowders are just fish soup. New England clam chowder – in its milky broth, thick with potato, sweet, chewy clam and perhaps a hint of smoky swininess – has sustained my passion throughout decades.
Even though I grew up in New England, I don’t believe that I was weaned on it. I can’t recall ever having it at home, although I wouldn’t put cooking it past my open-minded mother. I first became fixated on the stuff as an 11-year-old, when we took a family drive from Vermont to Florida.
It was an interminably long ride, and I sprawled in the back (no seat-belt law then), drew comic books and wished that I were with my friends. These endless hours were punctuated by stops at diners and simple eateries all along the Atlantic Coast. At every one I ordered clam chowder; and although we were no longer in New England, it was always New England-style. Sometimes the broth was thin as milk; sometimes thick enough to stand up a spoon. Sometimes the soup was studded with pink clam morsels; in other versions you were hard-pressed to find one. Some hinted of bacon or salt pork; and some seemed just clams, potatoes and milk. But I loved them all.
These days I’m pickier. Although I have cooked some sumptuous (albeit a bit gritty) versions in my day, from scratch with fresh clams, I like just to open a can sometimes. But the only can that will do for me is Snow’s: the condensed version that calls for a can of milk. I know that there are decent and pricier kinds of canned clam chowder out there, but I don’t want to pay an arm and a leg for canned soup. Unfortunately, my local supermarket stopped carrying the stuff a year or so ago, so I’ve tried some other brands, but found them too insipid to eat.
So I’ve had to figure out how to make my own. But I wanted a simple version: almost as quick as opening a can and based on things I can keep in the pantry. Lacking a ready source of the most recently harvested clams, I make do with chopped canned. But this soup’s speed and simplicity doesn’t sacrifice its being rich enough to make a filling and satisfying lunch.
Locally, we have sources of clam chowder from restaurants that specialize in it. The Bowery Dugout, a seafood restaurant on Ulster Avenue in Kingston, features it, as does Andy’s Place at 45 Dutchess Avenue in Poughkeepsie. New Paltz’s own Gadaleto’s Seafood Market and Restaurant, at 246 Main Street, has it, and even offered a recipe recently to members on the Hudson Valley Food Network. Its version uses bacon, butter and half-and-half. Poughkeepsie’s River Station on North Water Street has an entire Chowder Bar with five kinds: always New England clam, plus a rotating assortment of four others.
The original clam chowder was made in Maine of just water, clams and potatoes, with a base of salt pork: a salt-cured chunk of pig used in many traditional American dishes. In different parts of the Northeast, modifications abounded. Massachusetts added milk, and New York and parts of Connecticut tomatoes. The Rhode Island version has neither, based on a savory, clammy broth.
There was a fair bit of argument at one point over whether tomatoes belonged in chowder or not, and in February of 1939 one Assemblyman Seeder introduced a bill to the Maine Legislature forbidding their addition to chowder. Variations and developments have included the debatable improvement of extreme thickening with cream and/or flour. Modernist chef José Andrés’ version calls for embellishing the dish with loosely set clam-broth jelly, bacon, cream, potato purée, onion jam, chive oil and crushed potato chips.
I offer the following, somewhat simpler version: swineless; medium-bodied rather than thick; no ocean access needed. I believe that it rivals anything canned, and is good for a fast, warming lunch when it’s blustery outside.
Simple New England Clam Chowder
If you have leaves on your celery stalk, chop and throw them in too. You may wish to add a pinch of salt. Top with oyster crackers if you like. Serves two.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 small onion, chopped fine (about ½ cup)
1 stalk celery, chopped fine
1 tablespoon flour
Small sprig fresh thyme
1 (8-ounce) bottle clam broth
1 (6.5-ounce) can chopped clams, drained, broth reserved
2 medium red-skinned potatoes, peeled and diced
1 cup whole milk (Hudson Valley Fresh if possible)
2 teaspoons finely minced parsley (optional)
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Heat butter over medium heat. Add onion and celery and cook, stirring, until soft but not browned, about five to seven minutes.
Add flour and continue to stir until flour loses raw aroma and smells a little toasty.
Add thyme, clam broth from both bottle and can and diced potatoes. Raise heat until mixture begins to boil, then lower to a simmer and cook until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add chopped clams, milk, parsley (if used) and pepper. Cook gently at low heat for about five minutes to blend flavors. Remove thyme sprig before serving and season to taste.