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Clear chowder

Clear chowder
Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

While I was testing recipes a few weeks ago, something strange happened. A deep whiff of the Manhattan-style clam chowder I had just made transported me for a brief moment to my grandmother Josephine Cimarusti's kitchen in Lindenhurst, Long Island. A white-and-green-striped sugar bowl with a stainless, hinged, flip-top lid sat on the kitchen table; the scent of clam cakes and chowder filled the air. Perhaps you can relate. We all have foods that we're nostalgic about. For me, chowder is one of them.

These days, chowder is everywhere. American cooks have created countless versions; some bear little or no resemblance to the original. Chowder's venerable name is kicked about with little regard for its true importance. It's hard to find a great bowl of chowder no matter if you're in Augusta or Woonsocket, Astoria or the West Village. I've had white chowders as thick and appetizing as spackle and Manhattan chowder a hungry seagull couldn't pull a clam from.

Every chowder recipe you find will include two things without fail -- or at least they should -- onions and salt pork. The earliest versions of chowder would have included finfish over shellfish. Ship biscuits (something like hardtack) were used to thicken them. Early recipes call for salt pork, which differs from bacon mainly because it is not smoked. Potatoes became common in chowders only in the last 150 years or so.

We all think we know that Manhattan-style chowder is tomato-based and New England chowder is cream-based. Dig a little deeper and you'll find more regional variations. There are also tomato-based chowders that hail from New England, likely due to the large number of Italian and Portuguese immigrants that have crewed the region's fishing boats for generations.

One of my favorite chowders is the Rhode Island clear; made without cream or tomato, it is essentially nothing more than clam broth with potatoes, onions and salt pork.

At the briny core of any great chowder is a great clam. I suggest that you use clams in the shell. Quahogs, if you can get them, are preferred, but the more readily available cherrystone will also make a worthy chowder. The first thing to know about shucking a live quahog is that it would prefer not to be shucked. This part of the recipe is a chore, for which I have a solution: your freezer. Place the clams in your freezer for a couple of hours and you'll find they are much more cooperative.

After a couple of hours in the freezer, the clams should open easily and, while not entirely frozen, the meat will be firm and the juice slushy. Shuck the clams over a bowl to catch all the juice. After shucking the clams, you might find that you need more juice. Never fear: You can augment the fresh juice with canned or bottled clam juice.

Once you have shucked the clams, separate the meat from the juice. Chop the clams, strain the juice through a fine mesh sieve and store the meat and juice se- parately in the refrigerator until needed.

You should prepare the clams this way regardless of the chowder recipe. Also, you should not add the clams to the chowder itself until just minutes before it is served. This ensures that the clams will not be overcooked and that you'll also have a fresh, full-flavored chowder.

To enjoy any of these soups to their fullest, though, you'll need to make them a day in advance. Resting the soup overnight will yield a depth of flavor that is not present the day it is made.

To make my favorite chowder (the Rhode Island clear), you'll need just six ingredients: butter, salt pork, onion, clams, baking potatoes and salt. A classic cream chowder is really just a variation of the clear chowder. Simply reduce heavy cream by half and add it to the clear chowder base. Or you can make the clear chowder, bring the reduced cream to the table and let your guests decide.

Heck, you might even want to make the Manhattan chowder and the reduced cream, mix the two together and create a funky, hybrid pink chowder.

Just don't tell anybody from Boston or New York where you got the recipe.

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Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes, plus overnight chilling time for the soup | Serves 4
Note: Adapted from Michael Cimarusti of Providence restaurant.
  • 3 3/4 pounds quahog or cherrystone clams
  • 3 1/2 tablespoons (50 grams) butter
  • 2 2/3 ounces (75 grams) salt pork
  • About 1 2/3 cups (150 grams) white onion, small dice
  • Clam broth, up to 1 3/4 cups (400 grams)
  • 14 ounces (400 grams) baking potatoes, cut into 3/4-inch dice
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2.5 grams) kosher salt

Step 1Rinse the clams well under cold running water, scrubbing their shells with a brush.

Step 2Dry the clams a bit and place them in the freezer for one hour. This kills the clams and makes them much easier to open. Shuck the clams and reserve every drop of juice that drips from them. Coarsely chop the clams and place them in a covered plastic container, separate from the clam juice. Refrigerate the clams until you are ready to finish the soup. Measure the clam juice; you will need 1 3/4 cups (make up for any shortage using canned clam broth).

Step 3Rinse the salt pork well under cold running water. Dice the salt pork into one-fourth-inch cubes. Rinse it again once it is diced, for a minimum of five minutes. Drain well and set aside.

Step 4Melt the butter in a non-reactive saucepan over medium heat. Add the salt pork to the butter and stir until the salt pork begins to render. Add the onions and cook them slowly, stirring often, until translucent (do not allow them to brown). Add the clam juice and the diced potatoes, and bring the soup to a simmer. Cook the soup just until the potatoes are done. Remove the soup from heat, taste and adjust the seasoning if needed. This makes about 1 quart of soup.

Step 5Transfer the soup to a bowl set over a bowl of ice to stop the cooking and cool the soup quickly. Cover and refrigerate until needed. The soup is best made one day ahead of time, to give the flavors time to meld.

Step 6Before serving, rewarm the soup: Bring it to a simmer, check the seasoning and add 2 ounces of chopped clams for every (1 cup) serving of chowder. Cook the clams for a minute or two while stirring. Ladle the soup into warm bowls.

Variations

White chowder: Simmer 2 1/4 cups heavy cream over low heat until it is reduced by half, then add it to the clear chowder.

White chowder nutrition: 894 calories; 23 grams protein; 30 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 77 grams fat; 43 grams saturated fat; 274 mg cholesterol; 4 grams sugar; 1,465 mg sodium.

Each serving:
Clear chowder: 429 calories; 21 grams protein; 27 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 27 grams fat; 12 grams saturated fat; 89 mg cholesterol; 4 grams sugar; 1,414 mg sodium.
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