Food Friday: Not My Mother-in-Law’s Clam Chowder

Early in their marriage, so I’ve been told, my father-in-law had a bad habit of unfavorably comparing his young wife’s cooking with his mother’s…especially when the holidays rolled around. Dave’s mom wasn’t thrilled. To end the agony, my clever mother-in-law prepared a Christmas meal entirely unlike anything her midwest-raised husband had ever tasted: clam chowder. And so began their Christmas chowder tradition.

Dave’s mother’s Christmas clam chowder was my first experience with that warm, creamy, potato-y, bacon-y deliciousness in a bowl.  Before I met Dave, I’d never eaten the stuff and hadn’t the slightest desire to try it. (What was I thinking!?! I was missing out.) As a child, I’d never been a fan of seafood (to put it politely) and I never learned how to properly prepare it after I grew up (unless canned tuna piled on saltine crackers counts!). In Japan, I fell in love with real seafood, but preparation of said food remained largely uncharted territory. I’ve since barely graduated to the preparation of baked frozen fish fillets, but this year one of my goals is to add much more seafood to the menu.

So, inspired by warm holiday memories and newly-set goals, I bravely decided to try my hand at clam chowder. And not with clams from a can. No sir. I wanted the real deal. Dave insisted that I couldn’t used his mother’s recipe (it’s a secret!), and if I was going to make chowder, I needed my own version. I agreed, located a likely candidate in Food Network Magazine’s Super Easy Soups and Stews edition, began chowder preparation, and added the necessary items to my grocery list.

I marched decidedly up to the seafood counter at Kroger and began to carefully survey the items under glass.

“What can I help you with?” asked the jolly elderly man behind the counter when I looked up.

“I’d like three pounds of clams.”

“Well, well. I don’t think we have that much out here in the front, do we? Let me see what I can find in the back.”

He disappeared and returned a few moments later, wheeling a flat cart loaded with a sturdy cardboard box of clams. Chattering easily all the while, he walked up to the scale, took out two bags, one made of net, the other thin plastic (the kind you use to load ears of corn or onion greens in in the produce department) and he weighed the clams.

“I changed my mind. I’ll take four pounds.” The recipe actually called for four. I’d decided initially that I was going to cut that number down a tad, but I suddenly decided I wanted no such thing. Go big or go home.

He chuckled. “So the demand for clams has gone up in the last 5 minutes, has it?” He added a few more closed shells, asked if the number on the scale would do, and printed out a price sticker for my little bundle of clams.

“I put them in this plastic bag to prevent discoloration, but don’t tie the bag,” he cautioned as he swung the bundle over the counter and into my waiting hands. “Remember to keep it open in the fridge. They are alive you know.” He added the last sentence nonchalantly.

I nodded and thanked him casually as if I was a seasoned veteran of all things clam, but inwardly, I did a double take and nearly scattered my newest acquisition across the shiny linoleum floor. Was. He. Serious? Alive? What!?! I guess I just assumed they were caught and killed and handed to me in shell. Agh. No. No, indeed not. What had I done?

Regarding the initial panic and intimidation, there really was no need. Turns out, cooking clams really is one of the easiest things under the sun.  I can’t say I enjoyed the process of clam murder, and God knows both my husband and his brother got plenty of milage out of jokes to that effect, but killing dinner is a good reminder that clams (and chickens and cows) don’t grow in cans or in plastic wrap. They ought to be treated with respect and responsibility, both in their raising and in their preparation for the table. It gives cooking a little life perspective.

And how was the soup? Delicious. I got rave reviews and seals of approval from all three diners, and I do have to agree with them. Yes, it was very clam-y. Some versions, especially those using canned clams, lose some of the very distinctive clam taste, but if you like the taste of clams, fresh makes all the difference! This recipe is delish! It is based heavily off of the recipe from Food Network Magazine, but I made a few modifications… Give it a try!

The Ingredients:

4 lbs clams, ocean caught, scrubbed
3 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 lb bacon, cut into 1/2 inch slices
1 very large onion, diced
2 stalks of celery, thinly sliced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup full fat milk 
freshly ground pepper
sea salt
1 tsp dried parsley
2 TBSP chopped fresh chives
1/2 tsp paprika

The Drill:

1. Put clams and two cups of water in a stockpot. Cover pot, bring to a boil, and cook for 5 minutes. Uncover and cook an additional 5-10 minutes until the clams open. If any clams do not open, discard them. Place the open clams in a bowl. Collect the clam water in a large measuring cup; you should have 3 cups. Add more water if necessary. Rinse and wipe out pot as it may be quite grimy.

2. Strain the liquid back into the pot using a sieve lined with paper towels. (I used a funnel lined with a coffee filter. It was slow, rather messy, and I had to change the filter a couple times, but it did get the job done! I’m guessing the paper towel method works better, but I didn’t have any on hand.) Add the potatoes, cover, and cook until tender. Remove about 1/3 of the potatoes and set aside. Using an emersion blender, puree the soup.

3. Crisp the bacon slices in a skillet over medium high heat. Remove some of the bacon grease, if desired, leaving about 2 TBSPs. Add the onion and celery and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, thyme, and bay leaves and cook for a couple more minutes.

4. Add the bacon mixture and reserved potatoes to the soup. Cover and simmer for about 5 minutes.

5. While the soup cooks, take the clams from their shells and chop them coarsely. Then stir in the clam meat and milk, remove soup from heat, cover, and let set for 20 to 30 minutes to allow the flavors to amalgamate.

6. Remove and discard the bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper to taste and reheat. (The clam broth from step 1 is quite salty, so remember to take this into consideration when adding seasonings!) Serve soup garnished with parsley, chives, and paprika.

“What do I think? Seriously? This may be THE BEST thing I’ve ever put into my mouth. Not the best chowder, the best thing. It’s clam-y. If you don’t like clams, you won’t like this, but I like clams. I like clams a lot!”

This was Dave’s first response. Take it with a grain of salt, as he IS a huge fan of clams and he was super excited about this whole chowder business, but it did make me smile.

So there you have it, folks! This chowder is something special :).

Thoughts? Ideas? Suggestions? I’d love to know what you think! Happy munching!


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