For anyone who likes the flavor of the clam, clear chowder surpasses any other kind. Its pungency also sets it apart, particularly if, unlike Sam Sifton at The New York Times, the cook resists Ocean State apostasy always to select salt pork instead of bacon as its base.
Considerable debate has arisen about what defines a chowder, and it is tempting to consider the elemental dish more a state of mind than a set of things. Nonetheless it appears to us that chowder requires onion, salt pork, potato and broth. Even so, the North Atlantic trinity may be necessary but is not necessarily sufficient to qualify something as chowder depending on what else might go into the pot.
Notwithstanding its fundamental simplicity, variations of Rhode Island chowder abound but in this case the Miesian dictum rules. Six servings of comfort food.
- 8 lb small quahogs (preferred) or big cherrystones
- about 4 cups water (see the Notes)
- 4 oz salt pork cut into tiny dice
- 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
- a big sweet onion cut into ½ inch dice
- 2 bay leaves
- scant teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 lb peeled potatoes cut into ½ inch dice
- stock from the quahogs (about 6 cups)
- 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
- minced chives or scallion greens
- minced parsley
- Steam the clams in the water until most but not all of the clams open, usually in 10 to 15 minutes. (see the Notes)
- Fish the clams out of the pot and into a big bowl. Once they are cool enough to handle discard the shells and chop the calms into smallish pieces. Be sure to collect the liquor in the bowl for your broth.
- Pour the steaming liquid through a strainer into a container, taking care not to include any grit, sediment or other debris that may lurk at the bottom of the pot.
- Fry the salt pork with the butter in a big heavy pot over reasonably gentle heat until the pork renders and turns a crisp brown. Resist temptation to hurry the task; as much fat as possible should leach from the meat.
- Add the onion, bay and thyme to the pot, increase the heat to medium and cook the contents until the onions soften but do not brown.
- Stir the potatoes into the pot, then pour on the clam broth and simmer until the potatoes soften, usually in about 15 minutes.
- Add the lemon juice and pepper, dump the clams into the pot and turn off the heat immediately to prevent toughening them.
- Serve the chowder with the chives and parsley; Pilot crackers would be essential if they still existed but thanks to the bastards at Nabisco they do not, so substitute oyster crackers.
-Some Rhode Islanders place a jug of hot milk on the table so diners may color their clear chowder if they choose. Not us. Hot sauce, however, is a welcome pollutant.
-Opinion differs about the efficacy of bathing clams in water laced with cornmeal to purge them of sand and grit before cooking or eating raw. We think the cornmeal bath works based on our own experience and in any event it requires little effort to throw the clams into a big bowl of water with a Tablespoon or so of inexpensive cornmeal. Let the clams stand for at least an hour and change the water and meal if time permits.
-In 50 Chowders (New York 2000), Jasper White steams his quahogs in 2 cups of water and makes up the resultant liquid deficit with 2 cups of bottled clam juice. The variation will create an even more clammier chowder.
-White provides a good explanation for the reason not to wait for all the clams to open:
“Don’t wait for all the clams to open or they will be overcooked. It should only take a little tug or prying to open the stragglers once they are removed from the heat.” (50 Chowders 64)
-As revealed in Things We Like, the exemplar of Rhode Island chowders comes from St Clair Annex on Bay Street by the oldest carousel in America in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. The chowder from the Annex is plainer than ours but always seems better. It dispenses with the herbage and lemon, and the only way to get the topping of greens is by chopping them at home for addition to takeout.
-Imogene Wolcott described something similar in 1939. Her “Rhode Island Quahog Chowder” from The New England Yankee Cookbook is nothing if not plain. She calls for 1/8 lb diced salt pork; two sliced onions; 5 (presumably peeled) diced potatoes; 1 quart boiling water; ½ pint quahogs “drained and cut small;” “liquor from quahogs;” and salt and pepper. Her laconic instructions for using these ingredients:
“Try out the salt pork until browned. Add onions and fry until soft and yellow. Add potatoes and fry a little, but not to brown. Add pork, onions and potatoes to boiling water. Cook until potatoes are done; then add quahogs. Add liquor from quahogs cautiously, to taste (Take care!). Season and simmer a few minutes or until quahaugs are cooked through. Serves 6.” (Wolcott 6)
-In a bizarre turn, Wolcott quotes her source, a Mildred C. Williams from Ocean Street in Providence, noting that she “adds a cup of water to this chowder for each new guest she sees arriving. ‘You’ll be surprised how much this chowder may be diluted and still taste very good.’” We would be surprised indeed.
-Perhaps Wolcott and Williams were stingy; perhaps they share either a fetish for the bland or a dislike for the flavor of clams, but with a little help their chowder can be good. Simply steam the clams as described in Steps 1-3 of the bfia recipe and use the broth instead of boiling water. The result is elemental in the most satisfying sense.
-It should be mandatory to drink cheap Narragansett lager beer from the can with Rhode Island chowder.
-The range of clear chowder has constricted to South County in Rhode Island and the coastal towns of eastern Connecticut. When the Mooring, an extremely good, and friendly, seafood bar and restaurant in Newport attempted to revive clear chowder a few years ago, nobody ordered it and the effort failed.
-In Connecticut, chicken stock instead of clam broth may form the base for clear chowder. The chicken based variant its good, but our preference remains the pungent clam broth chowder of Rhode Island.
-Sifton not only allows the use of bacon as an option, but also resorts to fripperies like cherrystones, white wine, celery, bliss potatoes, bay and thyme. His chowder may be inauthentic but it is quite good, just not as good.
-One of Sifton’s innovations is, like the advent of an elfin army at Helm’s Deep in the film version of The Two Towers, most welcome. Traditional recipes shuck and chop the clams before adding them to the chowder pot. We have followed his lead, and the lead of Jasper White in 50 Chowders, to cook them first. That way you need not shuck the clams and you get stock instead of resorting to water or bottled clam juice for your chowder.
-Sifton’s nomenclature, however, is lamentable. According to him, “medium-size quahog clams” are “usually rated ‘top neck’ or ‘cherrystone.’” All three bivalves are hard shell clams but neither topnecks nor cherrystones are quahogs and no quahog is of medium size. Neither is a tiny topneck, the smallest grade of clam and so of course smaller than both the midsized littleneck and bigger cherrystone. Topnecks are the delicate oysters of the clam world and utterly unsuitable for chowder.
-A quahog is by definition big: That is what makes it a quahog, which is why traditional recipes like the one from The New England Yankee Cookbook instruct the cook to cut quahogs small, and the word itself never should be followed by “clam” unless you are of the benighted ‘round circle’ school. The distinction between the two commodities is longstanding. Wolcott for example, in her recipe for “Martha’s Vineyard Quahog Stew,” advises the reader: “Clams may be substituted for Quahogs.”
-Sifton may have summered in New England as a child but in respect of clams has gone all native New Yorker on the Rhode Island faithful.
-Wolcott’s stew of course is not a chowder--no salt pork, no onion or potato--but it is not bad and has a pedigree strikingly English with its simple roux, seasoning of mace and addition of egg for thickening. The recipe belongs to a Mrs. Clarence Voges, ironically enough not a Vineyarder. She ‘creams’ ½ cup butter with 2 Tablespoons flour, presumably although not explicitly over heat, stirs the roux “into” 4 cups “heated” milk along with undisclosed amounts of salt, pepper and mace (give your stew about half a teaspoon of the mace), although it would be more sensible to pour the milk into the roux, simmers the meat from a quart of quahogs she has shucked and chopped fine in their liquor for three minutes and adds the mixture to her sauce before sliding two beaten eggs into a tureen and stirring in the quahog mixture.
-White gets his clams right but also fripperizes his Rhode Island chowder with foreign objects that include bacon, fennel and crushed red pepper flakes.
-Miesian Dictum of course=Less is More.
-Our own use of lemon may be inauthentic, or maybe not. According to White, again in 50 Chowders, “dyed-in-the-wool Yankees sneer at the idea of lemon in chowder, but I have found lemon in several New England chowder recipes that are far older than they are.” A pity he did not disclose his sources; we have found no such reference.
-Although a modernist like White might demur, Mrs. Williams was right about one thing: "‘Quahog Chowder is even better the second day.’” (Quoted at Wolcott 6)