In a world where most clam chowders would be more aptly named “clam flavored potato soup”, finding a morsel of clam is like winning a Toyota Camry. It’s a feeling of elation that’s quickly tamped down by the realization that the rubbery clam is bland and tasteless.
That’s not a problem you’ll have in my version of the New England classic, as I include nearly 5 pounds of clams! Of course the problem with fresh clams is that they live in the muck at the bottom of the ocean, and so eating clams is often synonymous with eating sand. It’s a weakness of mine. For Superman it’s kryptonite, for others it’s the sound of fingernails scraping across a chalkboard, for me it’s grit in my food. Whether it’s an errant shard of egg shell or a grain of sand in in my clams, one bite is all it takes to ruin an otherwise delicious meal.
This aversion to chewing on dirt is the main reason why I avoided eating these succulent bivalves. That is, until I figured out a series of tricks to get rid of virtually all the sand in the clams. The first thing is to soak the clams in salt water, which will trick them into thinking they’re back in the ocean. After a while, the clams will open up and peak their little necks out, squirting out murky water and taking in the fresh salt water from the bowl. This gets the clams mostly grit-free, but like children, there are always the stubborn ones.
To ensure a truly sand-free experience, I steam the the clams open, remove the meat and then use the clam stock to rinse the clam meat. After letting the grit settle, you can skim the clams off the top, and then carefully transfer the stock to another container leaving the last bit of stock (and remaining sand) in the first bowl.
Once you have your cleaned clams, and clam stock, making New England clam chowder is simple. Bacon, onions, and potatoes are the only things that accompany the clams. Because the clams are steamed rather than boiled, the stock is concentrated enough that you can use milk rather than cream, which means less saturated fat with plenty of richness and flavor.
The resulting chowder is rich and creamy with tender clams and bits of smoky bacon in every bite. Crumble up some oyster crackers or hardtack when you eat it to add some body, and you’ll have a wicked good chowda fah suppaah.
- As soon as you bring your clams home from the store (preferably one day before you make the clam chowder) wash the clams with cold water and then put the clams in a bowl with enough salt water to cover the clams ( it should taste like the sea). Put the bowl in your refrigerator. Over the next 24 hours your clams will do their thing and siphon in the clean water expelling most of the grit they hold between their shells. If your clams are really dirty, you may need to change the water periodically.
- In a wide pot or sauté pan with a lid, add the clams along with 1/2 cup water. Cover and steam over medium high heat until all the clams have opened. Remove the pot from the heat and uncover.
- Remove the clam meat from the shells and transfer to a bowl. Discard any unopened clams. Once all the clams have been shelled, slowly pour the clam stock over the clams, leaving the last tablespoon or so of stock along with any grit in the pot. Wash the pot out.
- Agitate the clam mixture to allow any sand to settle to the bottom of the bowl, then let it sit for a minute to allow all the sand to settle to the bottom. Use your fingers or a slotted spoon to scoop the clams off the top of the liquid being careful not to disturb the sand at the bottom. Once you have all the meat separated, give the stock a few minutes to settle, then slowly pour the clam stock into a 2 cup liquid measuring cup, leaving the last bit of stock and any grit behind. You should have 2 cups clam juice, if you have less, add water to make 2 cups.
- Add the olive oil and bacon to the clean pot and fry until most of the fat has rendered from the bacon and it is starting to brown ( but not until its crisp).
Add the onions and sauté until the are tender and browned. Add the flour and continue frying for 1 minute.
- Turn off the heat, then add the clam stock and milk. Whisk together to dissolve the roux, and then add the potatoes, marjoram and bay leaf. Put the pot over medium heat and bring the pot to a low simmer. Do not let the soup boil.
- When the potatoes are tender, remove the bay leaf and return the clams to the pot. Once the clams have reheated the soup is done.