NEW ENGLAND CLAM CHOWDER – Marilyn Armstrong

A long chatty recipe with notes

I cook dinner every night, but my usual efforts are sleek little dinners that are easy to cook and even easier to clean up. Every once in a while, I get a buzz and decide I need to try something new.

Last week, I bought some frozen New England clam chowder. It wasn’t bad. I added a bit of extra half-and-half (that would be a 50-50 combination of milk and cream) and some za’atar and it was pretty good. But it wasn’t great and for $5.99 for a pint, I figured I could do that. Better and a lot cheaper.

Today we went to the grocery store. We picked up all the stuff I was supposed to buy the last time I shopped but forgot. Then I bought what I needed for the clam chowder.

Let me start by saying — there isn’t a recipe for New England clam chowder. There is a recipe for each person who ever cooked it. Sometimes two or three. After reviewing a dozen or so, I realized that they all included the same ingredients in various amounts which didn’t seem particularly precise:

Chopped onions  I diced up one-and-a-half big onions.

Chopped celery About a cup or a bit more.

Bacon (cut into small pieces) It was whatever I had left over from the last time I made a big breakfast … about 6 slices.

3 cups (more or less) of clams with clam juice *

* Long note: All the recipes I found used canned clams. I don’t like canned clams. They taste like the tin they came in. I used frozen, pre-cooked clams. Canned clams come in clam juice. Frozen clams don’t. And I forgot to buy clam broth. To create something liquid and clammy, I defrosted the frozen clams in chicken broth. I figured that soaking the clams in the broth was bound to make it taste clammy. It worked.

2 cups of half-and-half  OR cream. Most people use half-and-half to keep from everyone from getting sick from all that fat. Full cream? I wasn’t sure we’d live through the experience, though we would die happy.

An undesignated amount of potatoes, cooked, peeled, and diced. The recipes called for you to boil the potatoes in the clam broth — followed by a lot of comments from people complaining the potatoes were insufficiently cooked.

I hate it when the potatoes are hard. I cooked the potatoes separately, peeled them after they were cooked. This is usually easier than peeling them before cooking, though this time because I was using small golden potatoes, not so much. Then I cut them into cubes.

At this point, I had a big bowl of chopped celery and onions, a bowl of chopped up raw bacon, a bowl of defrosted cooked clams soaking in chicken broth. A jar of chopped garlic. A bottle of za’atar. Sea salt. White pepper. Butter.

I put the pot on the heat, threw in the bacon, added a lump of butter and waited for the bacon to brown, which it didn’t seem interested in doing. I got tired of waiting, so I added the onions and celery. Stirred and waited. More waiting. More stirring.

I turned down the heat to medium. Stirred some more. Eventually, I got tired of standing there so I turned up the heat and added the potatoes and clams. Stirred some more.

The phone rang. Did I know how to clear a used (my used) Roku so my granddaughter could use it? No, I didn’t, but they probably would have instructions on the Roku website.

I took the phone with me to the kitchen making a quick stop to rinse the potatoes off my fingers. Peeling the potatoes was messy.

The phone rang again. Kaity thought she’d found the information on the box in which the Roku came. It sounded right to me and I wasn’t in a good place to start googling how to reboot a Roku.

Meanwhile, I decided to use cornstarch instead of flour as a thickener. I have not had good results using flour as a thickener. Maybe it’s me, but it always turns into a gloppy, lumpy mess. But I’m great with cornstarch. I put a couple of tablespoons of starch into a cup, added a bit of cold water and stirred it. I set it aside for when I would need it.

I added half the clammy chicken broth to barely cover the vegetables, clams, and potatoes. That was when I tripped over Bonnie and knocked the liquid starch all over the kitchen. Not her fault, but still, there was cornstarch everywhere. Cabinets, floor, dishwasher, me.

Garry wiped. I appreciated his wiping.

When everything seemed to be barely boiling, I added the two cups of half-and-half, salt, pepper, and za’atar.

I stirred it and left it to simmer. I put together another batch of starch and water (two tablespoons cornstarch and just enough cold water to mix it). I did not knock this one on the floor.

This was also when I realized I needed to heat up the rolls (nice crusty ones) and I needed Garry to come and taste. He came. He tasted. He said: “Hey, that’s good.” Great praise indeed, though to be fair, Garry is a really good eater as long as it doesn’t contain peas, lima beans, oatmeal, or cut corn.

So I tasted it too. It was good. It is rare for me to make something from scratch without a real go-to recipe and have it come out better than I expected. Usually, my first try is disastrous or at least, not quite right.

I turned up the heat and when the liquid was thinking about boiling, I added the starch and it thickened up. The toaster bell went off. Dinner! I had created some better than average New England clam chowder. We ate. We ate more than we usually eat and it was delicious. A bit heavy. And there’s enough for another meal. I’m not going to do that much cooking for one little meal, after all. But tomorrow night? Frozen pizza. I don’t think my stomach could handle two days in a row of chowder.

We have to make choices, don’t we? Sometimes, the price of something especially yummy is a borborygmus tummy.

Don’t you love that word?

Editorial addition:

I think I’m going to try and find a non-cream-based shrimp bisque. Shrimp is always available frozen and usually pre-cooked and relatively inexpensive. if I can keep the cream out of it, Garry’s gut won’t explode and I won’t feel like a blimp after dinner.

So far, though, all the bisque recipes are as full of cream as the chowder. There’s gotta be another way! More research!

34 thoughts on “NEW ENGLAND CLAM CHOWDER – Marilyn Armstrong”

  1. I love Boston Clam Chowder. That what we call it. Mum new the secret kiosk in the famed Saint John Market where she used buy Lobster Rolls. But I knew about the small Diner on Main Street where they made the most incredible Boston Clam Chowder. Sometimes I was about the only person in there. Did I care? Nope. I had my chowder!

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  2. I can only say congratulations. I also prefer corn starch to flour. I have never eaten clam chowder, for the simple reason, no clams in Switzerland. We don’t even have an ocean. I slowly give up with big cook ins, I am getting lazy in the kitchen, but I avoid the prepared meals where I can. I like to know what I am eating

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    1. This is the first “new” recipe I’ve tried in about 3 years. I’ve also gotten VERY efficient in the kitchen. You can probably get canned or frozen clams, but it’s a lot of work for a small number of people. It’s not hard work, but it is a lot of chopping and slicing and skinning and stirring. On the other hand, it came out shockingly good. WAY better than I thought possible. Whether I’ll ever make it again is another issue. I invented a brilliant recipe for ginger snaps, but I only made them twice and then it was too much work.

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        1. It is brilliant on the things it does well, though the tiny one is basically useless. I’d need to recruit my son to push is all the way down! And if I know Owen, he’d probably break it. But my onions and peppers have been MARVELOUSLY neat and tidy!

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          1. I use the small one all the time. Just don’t cut the slices too thick. And be sure the entire circumference of whatever you are cutting is within the blade grid, not sticking out onto the plastic part.

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            1. I noticed that pretty quick. It has to fit on the grid. The larger one is fine for almost everything anyway, so I am not going to worry about it right now. I probably didn’t slice the stuff thin enough.

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  3. There is a Boudin bread bakery about five blocks from where we live and they make excellent New England clam chowder that they serve in a craved-out round of sourdough bread (for the bowel). It’s delicious and it’s only $4.95 for the chowder and bread bowl, which is enough to function as a standalone meal. It’s a several times a month thing for us.

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    1. I ate there the last time we were visiting SF. I remember the big bread bowl. It was pretty good. There are a few places around here that make really killer chowder, but as it turns out, we need a less lethal version. We don’t eat such rich food hardly ever anymore, so when you go back to it, your stomach really rebels.

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    1. You can look up recipes online. There are a million of them. I eventually realized they were all pretty much the same and the main differences were between full cream and half-and-half. I thought the half-and-half was quite rich enough (and that is what most of the recipes suggested). We might not live through a full cream experience.

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        1. It is very rich. I’m now working on a New York version that leaves out the cream and works with fish broth and tomatoes. People in Boston tend to scoff at it, but they don’t have a lactose-intolerant husband.

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  4. Ah clam chowder. How can I have forgotten it. It was mostly all we ate when eating out in Maine. Also love the way you work up to the finished product – which of course did work! Reasoned experience over recipe.

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    1. Pretty much every recipe had the same ingredients. The only difference was how much of which, But basically it’s cream or half-and-half, bacon, butter, onions, celery, some kind of fish broth, clams and a thickener. Salt and pepper to taste. I thought the za’atar would help (it did). It was a lot of standing in the kitchen and turning and stirring, changing heat settings (harder on an electric stove) and also, I think you need to have more diners because it’s quite a lot of chowder and pretty thick. Much more a meal than an appetizer unless you have a really big appetite. I suppose one could freeze it, but I don’t usually like “cream” frozen soup. The texture gets weird.

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      1. Agree about the frozen ‘cream’ soups. They do go weird. I seem to remember making a less heavy version of chowder (if that’s not anathema) by using pureed celeriac (cooked in stock) as the main thickener which meant you didn’t need so much cream, but then it didn’t have clams in either because they’re not so easy to get here, and I was using smoked haddock!

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        1. I thought clams and other mud critters were universal. I guess not! We certainly get a LOT of haddock. It isn’t my favorite fish, but we don’t get the array of fish we did before they fished out George’s Reef. Stupid fishermen. The wouldn’t listen when they were warned repeatedly that if they kept over-fishing that area, there would be NO FISH LEFT.

          And that’s what happened. Now, it’s protected while we try to let the fish rebuild their numbers. And we don’t have a lot of fish, either.

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          1. Not keen on straight haddock either – but naturally smoked has a lot going for it. Fish in the UK is v. expensive (mostly) for much the same reasons as you’ve covered – too much fishing of key species. We have a lot of farmed salmon. It tastes good, but I’m not keen on the way it’s reared, processed feeds, some of questionable content.

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            1. I’m just sick of farmed or free salmon. It has been the only affordable fish other than haddock. We don’t get much smoked fish here. Pity, because I really like it. We had a friend who fished down on the Vineyard and she had her own smoker. She used to catch bluefish and smoke them for us. They were great. Smoked fish is a regional thing. New Yorkers are much more into it than we apparently are in New England.

              But there sure is an awful lot of missing fish and as Garry put it, he’s “salmoned out.”

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    1. It’s the richness that’s a problem here. And Garry’s problem with lactose, which is mild, but it’s still there. Also, it’s a lot of work, though the results are worth it. I’d have to come up with a much lower fat version, too. Maybe if I try it again, I’ll see what can be reduced. This was delicious, but a bit lethal.

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  5. That sounds a lot like my recipe except I use buttermilk instead of cream. Also the za’atar is a nice touch. I’ll have to try that. I agree that the tin clams tend to taste tinny.
    Leslie

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        1. It was always available in New York, but I’ve never seen it here. Some stuff really IS regional. Garry’s lactose-intolerance really means I need to find a recipe for Manhattan-style chowder which has no cream in it. But right now, I’m too tired to care!

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