Friday, July 10, 2009

Nana's New England Clam Chowder

I grew up on this stuff. I remember riding in the back of my dad's 1940s era pickup to Pismo Beach to dig for clams. I remember my mom grinding the clam meat in an old fashioned hand crank meat grinder. I remember enjoying her savory chowder on cool California nights.

When I grew up, I asked my mom where she learned to make this, and she referred me to my Nana, who lived most of her life in Cape Cod before moving her family to California. Nana gave me her recipe, which I have used and adapted over the years to make this great version that my family loves. My oldest even asks for this for her birthday meal every year.

First, I begin with salt pork. If you're not familiar with this, you can find it near the hams or the bacon. It is similar to a large hunk of bacon, but it is mostly the fat underneath the skin. In fact, usually you will find the skin still attached to one side of the chunk; simply slice it off with a sharp knife. Then, dice the salt pork and saute in your soup pan over medium high heat.

When it starts to brown, but before it gets too dark brown (because it will get hard), remove it with a slotted spoon to a paper towel lined plate. You will need these little nuggets of salty goodness later.

Next, you need to steam your clams. I highly recommend using fresh clams; the taste is so much superior to canned. You can usually find fresh ones easily if you live near the ocean, and sometimes even when you don't you can find them in a specialty seafood store. If you just can't get them, you will have to use canned, and substitute the fresh clam broth with bottled clam juice.

To steam clams, first clean them thoroughly. I start this early in the day because this process can be time consuming. First use a stiff brush to clean the shells, especially along the edges of the lips. Then, put your clams in cold, salted water (1/3 cup salt per gallon) for twenty minutes, then drain and rinse thoroughly. Repeat this rinse 1-2 times more. This gets the live clams to spit out any sand in their shells, and gets the shells clean for steaming. Be sure to use very cold water, as warm water may kill them.

I steam my clams using a steamer basket in a large pot. I also put the leafy celery tops in the steamer under the clams to add flavor to the clams and broth. Cover tightly with a clear lid, so you can see when the clams begin to open. Don't overcook them! Remove them from the steamer and set aside to cool. Reserve the broth for use in the chowder.

You can strain this broth through cheesecloth if you like, but I simply put it in a bowl and let it sit so that any sediments fall to the bottom, then use a ladle to scoop the clear broth out from the top. While this is cooling, I remove the clams from the shells, and discard any that didn't open. Once the clams are cool, mince them for adding to the chowder later.
Next, use the fat from the salt pork to cook your diced onion and celery until soft. Then, add the diced potato and saute for a bit to begin cooking them. Next, add the reserved broth, just to cover the potatoes. Add in your fresh thyme and Worsteshire sauce now, also. Cook until the potatoes are soft.

Now, I like to slightly mash the potatoes at this point. It helps make a creamier, richer chowder. I use my potato masher, but you can also press the potatoes against the sides of the pot with your wooden spoon.
Next, add your cream, but reserve one cup. To that one cup of cream, whisk in about 4 tablespoons flour. When the cream in the pot is heated through, add the remaining cream and stir until thickened. Then stir in the minced clams and season to taste with salt and pepper.

This creamy, delicious chowder is even better with a few bits of the salt pork as a garnish. Enjoy!
Nana's New England Clam Chowder
4 pounds fresh clams (cherrystone are best)
celery tops (with leaves)
1 pound salt pork, rind removed, diced
1 medium onion, diced
4 stalks celery, diced
4 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
2-3 bottles clam juice (if needed)
1 quart half and half
4 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon thyme (fresh is best)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
dash Worcestshire sauce

Scrub clams with stiff brush. Mix 4 quarts cold water and 1/3 cup salt. Soak clams for 15 mins, then rinse. Repeat twice. In a large saucepan put approx 1-2 inches water and celery tops. Bring to a boil. Place clams in steamer; cover tightly. Steam until open. Reserve broth. Cook pork until crisp in another large saucepan. Remove with slotted spoon onto paper towels. Remove all but 4 tbsp of grease. Saute onions and celery in grease until soft. Add potatoes, thyme, cayenne, and broth. Add juice to cover. Boil until potatoes are soft. Use a fork or potato masher to mash half the potatoes. Mix one cup of cream with flour. Add remaining cream to pot. Stir in flour mixture. Simmer until thick. Add chopped clams. Season with salt and pepper.

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