New England Clam Chow-dah

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After dropping off our daughter at college in Boston for her sophomore year, my wife and I decided to take advantage of the re-emptied nest and tool around Cape Cod. It was a great time to visit, not too crowded and the weather was perfect. Beaches, dunes, long hikes and excellent dining were marred only by trying to find a bar that would be willing to show the Michigan-Utah football game in lieu of the Patriots or Red Sox.

I tried chowders of all sorts, from hearty fish stews to the sherry-flavored Maine-style lobster bisque. I became quite picky about clam chowder, disdaining the thick, Elmer’s-glue style porridge, and favoring those with good broth and plenty of clams.

I have tried making clam chowder in the past but it’s been a while. In researching it I found nary a solid recipe in any of my cookbooks, and nearly had to go to the “Dark Web” to find a good version. I began to recall how wickedly difficult it is to make a fine clam chowder. Should one go with meatier Quahogs or smaller and more delicate Cherrystones? Russet or red potatoes? Bacon, salt pork or meatless? And the trickiest of all, how to balance the clam broth and cream to give it a silky texture without it breaking down?

I ended up at Massachusetts-based Cook’s Illustrated, also home to America’s Test Kitchen, and their extensive recipe experimentation. They also tend to try and simplify things for the home cook. Bear in mind that some versions of clam chowder involve intensive layering of ingredients in the stewpot, more akin to a science lab than a kitchen. I am satisfied that Cook’s Illustrated has found the right balance.

New England
Clam Chowder

Ingredients:
7 lbs. medium-size hard-shell clams, such as littleneck, topneck, or small cherrystone, washed and scrubbed clean
4 slices thick-cut bacon (about 4 ounces), cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 large Spanish onion, diced medium  (about 2 cups)
2 Tbsp unbleached all-purpose flour
3 medium boiling potatoes   (about 1 1/2 pounds), scrubbed and  diced medium
1 large bay leaf
1 tsp. fresh thyme or 1/4 tsp. dried thyme
1 c. heavy cream
2 Tbsp minced fresh parsley leaves

Directions:

1. Bring clams and 3 cups water to boil in large, covered soup kettle. Steam until clams just open, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer clams to large bowl; cool slightly.

2. Remove clams from shells by opening clams with a paring knife while holding over a bowl to catch juices. Next, sever the muscle from under the clam and remove it from the shell. Reserve meat in bowl and discard shells.

3. Mince clams; set aside. Pour clam broth into 2-quart Pyrex measuring cup, holding back last few tablespoons broth in case of sediment; set clam broth aside. (Should have about 5 cups.) Rinse and dry kettle; return to burner.

4. Fry bacon in kettle over medium-low heat until fat renders and bacon crisps, 5 to 7 minutes. Add onion to bacon; sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add flour; stir until lightly colored, about 1 minute. Gradually whisk in reserved clam juice.

5. Add potatoes, bay leaf, and thyme; simmer until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Add clams, cream, parsley, and salt (if necessary) and ground pepper to taste; bring to simmer.

6. Remove from heat and serve. Oyster crackers are nice but optional.

By the way, they really do say “chow-dah” in New England. And mothers upset with their children say “If you don’t behave, I’ll take you straight to the cah.”

And they’d rather watch the Pats over Michigan football, despite my pleas that they wouldn’t have had any Super Bowl rings without Wolverine alumni Tom Brady at the helm. Well, at least their chowdah was good.

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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a litigation firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. He can be reached at nroumel@yahoo.com.  His blog is http://mayitpleasethepalate.blogspot.com/.

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