I first had clam chowder about a decade ago while sitting on a bench on the touristy Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. It came in a sourdough bread bowl and was so thick, the chowder stuck to the roof of my mouth. It was like chewing drywall!
Several years later, while grocery shopping, I picked up a bag of littleneck clams because they were on sale, even though I had no idea what I was going to do with them. It was winter, when a nice, thick chowder is so satisfying, so I decided to try my hand at my own version, which is surprisingly simple to make. Serve this with a thick slice of bread from a rustic loaf.
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If you like your chowder on the lighter side, forgo the heavy cream and use half-and-half or even milk. If, however, you prefer a thicker chowder, you can slowly stir in a tablespoon or so of flour right after you add the cream. Be careful, though, not to go too heavy on the flour, or your chowder can turn to sludge. If live clams aren't in your budget, use a 13.5-ounce can of clams with their juices and 2 to 3 cups of claim juice.
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, chopped
6 pounds littleneck clams, shells scrubbed and rinsed
½ cup dry white wine
4 slices bacon, cut into ½-inch pieces
3 Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled, cut into medium dice
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 cups poultry stock or low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon finely chopped chives
In a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter. Add 1/3 cup of the chopped onion and cook, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes or until fragrant and soft. Set aside 12 to 16 of the clams and add the rest to the pan. Add the wine, cover, and steam for 4 to 6 minutes, until the clams open. Turn off the heat and, with a slotted spoon, remove the cooked clams, saving the clam juice and onion mixture in the pan. Remove the cooked clams from their shells, chop them, and set them aside.
In a large soup pot over medium-high heat, cook the bacon until crisp. Remove the bacon with tons or a slotted spoon and set it aside, leaving the rendered bacon fat in the pot.
Add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter to the pot and let it melt. Add the potatoes, celery, and carrot, and the remaining onion. Cook until the vegetables are slightly tender, 6 to 8 minutes, stirring frequently.
Pour the reserved claim juice and onion mixture from the sauté pan into the soup pot. Add the stock and, if necessary, add water to just cover the vegetables. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes or until the potatoes are tender enough to piece with a fork but do not break.
Stir in the reserved chopped clams and bacon and the cream. Cook for 10 minutes more, stirring occasionally, until the chowder returns to a simmer and thickens. Season with salt and pepper. Add the remaining live clams and simmer for 5 minutes or until the clams open. Ladle into bowls and garnish with the thyme and chives.
Note: Give the clams a bath. Clams, like other mollusks, require a good scrubbing before cooking. Under cold running water, use a toothbrush or nail brush to scrub the outside of each shell. This also gives you an opportunity to determine whether there are any dead clams in your batch. You'll want to discard these, as they may contain bacteria that you certainly don't want to eat. If a clam is gaping open, lightly tap its shell: if it's alive, it should close up. The opposite goes for cooked clams: If one refuses to open after all the other have been steamed open, don't try to pry it open. Toss it.