When the weath-er gets crisp in the fall, I crave my mother’s clam chowder. The rivalry on the East Coast is fierce over the proper way to make clam chowder; so fierce, in fact, that in 1939, Maine introduced a bill in the legislature to make it illegal to add tomatoes. New Englanders believe clam chowder should be off-white in color with a creamy consistency (thickened with potatoes and heavy cream, not flour, which is commonly used on the West Coast), and that version has been a staple there since the 1830s. About 20 years after clam chowder made a splash in New England, the large population of Italian immigrants in New York City decided to add tomatoes to clam chowder, which thinned it, turned it a ruby-red hue, and introduced that slightly acidic bite famous in what we now know as Manhattan clam chowder. And then there is Rhode Island clam chowder.
Never a state to follow their New England neighbors where food is concerned, little Rhody claims to have the original and best version of this New England classic — a clear broth that allows the clam flavor to shine (a splash of milk and a pat of butter at the end are optional). Rhode Island is the smallest state in the United States but has the largest Italian population (over 25 percent of Rhode Islanders have Italian roots), so over the years, some families have added tomatoes to their recipes. And some Rhode Islanders with Irish roots like my father prefer the traditional thick and creamy style. My mother made the clear broth Rhode Island chowder, which I prefer, but she added tomatoes to hers and made my father’s thick and creamy. If this sounds like a lot of work, it’s not — Rhode Island clear broth “clam chowda” is the perfect base for making the more traditional versions.
For the clams, my mother used the large “quahogs,” also called “chowder clams,” the biggest of the New England clams (which are all technically quahogs, but named differently based on size). Quahogs can sometimes be found in Asian markets, but it’s perfectly fine to use cherry stones, which are a bit smaller, or little necks, which are the smallest of the three. Little necks and cherry stones are readily available in most San Francisco markets. I don’t advise using manila clams if you want real New England clam chowder — they’re too small, plus the flavor is mild and sweet versus the bright, almost buttery notes of New England varieties.
Potatoes are a personal preference — I like to mix russet with Yukon gold, which creates the perfect amount of starch to naturally thicken the chowder.
While salt pork is traditional in New England style chowders, thick-cut bacon can be substituted. I leave the pork out of my version all together (sorry, Mom), because I find the smokiness and saltiness overshadows the delicate briney essence of the clams.
RHODE ISLAND CLEAR BROTH ‘CLAM CHOWDA’
10–12 little neck or cherry stone clams in the shell
1 bottle good quality clam juice*
¼ pound salt pork or thick-cut bacon, chopped into ½ inch pieces (or 2 tablespoons unsalted butter if not using pork)
½ cup Spanish (yellow) onions, diced into ¼-inch pieces
3 6½ ounce cans good quality chopped clams*, drained, with juice reserved
2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and chopped into ½-inch to ¾-inch pieces
1 pound Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and chopped into ½-inch to ¾-inch pieces
½ teaspoon white pepper
½ teaspoon celery salt
1 teaspoon sea salt (if not using salt pork)
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
½ cup whole milk (optional)
¼ cup unsalted butter (optional)
*(I like Bar Harbor, available at finer markets such as Whole Foods.)
Scrub fresh clams and rinse under cold running water to remove remaining sand or grit. Discard any that are not tightly closed (these are already dead and thus inedible). If desired, reserve several whole clams per portion as garnish.
Put clams in a large, heavy stockpot or Dutch oven and cover with 6 cups of water. Bring to a simmer over medium- to medium-high heat. Cover the pot and cook just until the clams open, about 5 to 7 minutes. Immediately remove the clams from the pot. (Do not overcook or they will become tough and rubbery.) When cool enough to touch, remove the cooked clam meat from the shells and dice.Set aside.
Add bottled clam juice and reserved canned clam juice to the broth-infused water, cover the pot, and place over low heat.
In a medium skillet, cook the salt pork over medium heat until fat renders and meat is browned and crisp. Remove and set aside. Reduce heat to medium-low, add onion and sauté until soft and translucent but not caramelized (if not using pork, sauté the onions in 2 tablespoons butter), about 8 to 10 minutes.
When the onions are cooked, scrape along with any brown bits stuck to the skillet, into the clam broth. Bring the broth to a gentle boil over medium-high heat and add the potatoes. Cover and cook until tender, about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add reserved salt pork and stir. Season with pepper and Worcestershire sauce (and salt, if not using pork).
Add the reserved whole clams if using, and steam until just opened. Using a slotted spoon, remove and place three clams at the bottom of each serving bowl (optional).
Add the milk and stir until well blended (optional).
Add the butter and stir until melted and top of chowder has a golden sheen (optional).
Add the reserved cooked clams and canned clams, and heat through for 30 seconds. (Do not overcook or they will become tough and rubbery.)
Ladle into bowls over whole clams and serve.
Refrigerate remainder — like most chowders, it’s better the next day!
CREAMY (NEW ENGLAND) CLAM CHOWDER
Before adding clams, stir in 1 cup heavy cream. Using an emersion (stick) blender, purée until some of the potatoes break up and broth becomes thickened (skip optional milk and butter steps).
TOMATO (MANHATTAN) CLAM CHOWDER
Before adding clams, stir in one 28-ounce can of San Marzano crushed tomatoes (skip optional milk and butter steps).
CREAMY TOMATO CLAM CHOWDER
Before adding clams, stir in one 28-ounce can of San Marzano crushed tomatoes and 1 cup heavy cream. Using an emersion (stick) blender, purée until some of the potatoes and tomatoes break up and broth becomes thickened (skip optional milk and butter steps).