When a friend heard I was making a big pot of clam chowder in the middle of summer she thought I was crazy. I know most people associate soups with cooler weather; they're so often a big bowl of comfort on a snowy winter day. For the most part, I do too. I rarely crave a hot bowl of soup on a day when the temperatures climb near 90. There are exceptions to every rule though, and for me, chowder has always been a part of summer. When I was younger, we'd gather at my grandparents' house on the 4th of July and my grandfather would make Manhattan clam chowder (a tomato-based chowder) and the most delicious clam cakes. Those clam cakes were legendary - I really should find that recipe and attempt them next year, though I'm not sure I could ever do them justice. If you've ever vacationed in Rhode Island in the summer (particularly in the southern part of the state) you've probably driven by any number of clam shacks and seen the long lines. Chowder and clam cakes are a staple of summer living here. There's even a Rhode Island style clam chowder, which has a clear broth, as opposed to the cream or milk-based New England clam chowder. The New England version is my favorite, so when I came across this recipe in a recent issue of Cook's Country, I had to try it.
While you can no doubt spend hours making a great clam chowder - shucking the clams and making your own stock - this is a quick and easy version. From start to finish it'll take you less than an hour. I was apprehensive about buying clams for the first time, but when I got to the store it was a complete non-issue. At the seafood counter I found fresh chopped clams, at a relatively inexpensive price too! I'd definitely recommend skipping the canned clams here if you can. The chowder is thickened with crushed crackers, which dissolve into the soup as it cooks, as well as by mashing some of the potatoes for extra body. Though it seemed strange, it worked perfectly. The chowder was thick and creamy, with lots of flavor. Shane and I are rarely able to resist a bowl of New England clam chowder when we see it on the menu somewhere, so I love that we can make it at home any time we want now, even in the middle of summer :)
New England Clam Chowder
from Cook's Country, September 2011
4 slices bacon, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
3 8-oz bottles clam juice
2 cups water
1 1/2 lbs russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
20 saltines, crushed
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
2 lb chopped clams, rinsed and drained
1 cup heavy cream
Add the bacon to a large saucepan set over medium heat and cook for 7-8 minutes, or until crisp. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. Pour off the grease, leaving only 1 tablespoon in the pan.
Add the onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Mix in the clam juice, water, potatoes, saltines, thyme and the bay leaf. Bring the mixture to a boil then reduce the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender, stirring occasionally.
Transfer 1/2 cup of the tender potatoes to a bowl and mash until smooth. Add back to the pan and stir to incorporate. Reduce the heat to low and add the clams, cooking for 3-5 minutes, or until they're cooked through. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the heavy cream. Season to taste with salt and pepper. If desired, sprinkle with reserved bacon as you serve.