One of my all-time favorite children’s stories is “Blue Moose” by Daniel Pinkwater. Like many of Pinkwater’s stories it is an offbeat tale, populated with quirky characters, beautifully and evocatively written. In it, a large blue moose ambles into a restaurant in the snowy woods of Maine. The proprietor, unable to shoo the moose away, relents and invites him into the kitchen, feeding him bowls of clam chowder, fresh gingerbread, and steaming cups of coffee. The moose slurps his chowder appreciatively, inhaling its briny perfume and reveling in its creamy comfort. He is given a room and stays on as headwaiter, serving the restaurant’s loyal, if taciturn, customers and confounding the local game warden.
Every year right about now I reread this story and make a pot of chowder. I’m not quite sure what compels me to do this in late February, as opposed to, say, early December or mid-January. It is just one of those seasonal cravings that kicks in of its own accord and I merely submit to it.
But why am I writing about chowder, a distinctly American dish, on a blog devoted to Italian home cooking? The answer is that none of us cooks in a vacuum. Although I am 100 percent Italian, I was born in New York and raised in New Jersey, and my dad, whose parents were from Italy, was born and raised in Rhode Island. So we’ve always been big chowder lovers in my family. I’ve even had the pleasure of serving as a judge in an annual unofficial—but totally serious—chowder competition staged by a group of chowder aficionados in Annapolis whose winning entries in past years have included a lovely, if unconventional, curried succotash chowder and an excellent Maryland rockfish chowder. (I wrote a piece about chowder and the competition last year for NPR Kitchen Window.)
This year, I’m making a classic—New England clam chowder, featuring those beautiful cherrystones that you see at the top of this post. The recipe is adapted slightly from one in The Best Recipe Soups & Stews, by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated. I added a splash of vino because, after all, I am Italian.
(P.S. Special thanks to Adriana for scrubbing all the clams and Scott for shucking, chopping, mincing, and other prep duties requiring two hands.)
New England Clam Chowder
Adapted from The Best Recipe Soups & Stews, by the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated
Makes 6 servings
7 pounds medium-sized hard-shell clams, such as cherrystones (shells no bigger than 4 inches wide), washed and scrubbed clean
Bottled clam juice, if needed
4 to 5 slices thick-cut bacon (about 4 ounces), cut into 1/4-inch strips
1 large yellow onion, chopped medium
1/2 cup dry fruity white wine (I used Vermentino di Sardegna)
2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 pounds red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 large bay leaf
4 or 5 small sprigs thyme
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
Freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste
Bring 3 cups water to a boil in a large stockpot. Add the clams and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Cook for 5 minutes, uncover, and stir with a wooden spoon. Quickly cover the pot and steam until the clams just begin to open, 2 to 4 minutes. Transfer the clams to a large bowl and cool slightly. Open the clams with a paring knife or clam knife, holding the clams over a bowl to catch all the juices. With the knife, sever the muscle that attaches the clam belly to the shell and transfer the meat to a cutting board. Discard the shells. Mince the clams, taking care to scrape away any dark green pasty stuff (the contents of the clam belly). Put the minced clams in a bowl and set aside.
Pour the clam broth from the pot, and any juices collected in the bowl, through a fine-mesh sieve lined with damp cheesecloth and into a 2-quart liquid-measuring cup. You should have about 5 cups; if not, add bottled clam juice to make 5 cups.
Put the bacon in a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot and fry it over medium-low heat, stirring now and again, until the fat renders and the bacon crisps, about 10 minutes. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 7 to 8 minutes. Raise the heat to medium-high and pour in the wine. Let it bubble for a minute or so and return the heat to medium-low. Sprinkle in the flour and stir until lightly colored, 1 to 2 minutes. Gradually stir in the reserved clam broth. Add the potatoes, bay leaf, and thyme and simmer until the potatoes are tender but not mushy, 15 to 20 minutes.
Stir in the clams, cream, parsley, and a generous grinding of pepper. Taste and add salt if you like (between the saltiness of the bacon and the clam broth, my chowder was salty enough). Remove from the heat, discard the bay leaf and thyme sprigs, and serve immediately.