Mastering the widely popular New England Clam Chowder entails knowing and using the three characteristic, most crucial ingredients.
What most recognize as the definitive clam chowder is the thick and creamy version, sometimes called “Boston clam chowder,” associated with the cold and stormy New England states. These recipes usually feature some combination of potato and pork product along with varying types of diced vegetables and minimal herbs or spices, allowing the fresh clam flavors to shine.
However, the flavor of this chowder comes primarily from the combination of Mercenaria mercenaria, pork and potato carried by the thick base, not so much from the freshest seafood to be found. This combination evens out the perceived inferior status of pre-packaged ingredients, and makes canned clams justifiably acceptable, if not preferable. (For best results, choose whole or large-cut clams; frozen clam meat would be even better.)
The key and most essential element of a great clam chowder is the salt pork. Most recipes call for bacon—which is not a wholly undesirable ingredient, if that is all that can be acquired. Salt pork is salt-cured pork belly identical to bacon except that it has not been smoked, and thus lacks that characteristic, flavorful essence that endears bacon to many. As it turns out, this difference can be critical.
Salt pork plays better with the briny clam meat and broth flavors, providing a meaty base instead of the unmistakable and characteristic smoked profile of bacon. What you taste is a deeply flavored dish of clam (supported by a small dice of creamy russet potatoes) without bacon stealing the spotlight. A perfectly presentable chowder can be cooked using bacon, but it is a difference that is not noted until it is missed.
In similar fashion, russet potatoes have just the right amount of starch to disappear into the chowder and not take textural attention away from the clams as would a waxy red potato or softer, yellow Yukon Gold. A little aromatic onion and celery, diced and lightly sautéed, round out the ingredient list with just a pinch of thyme. White pepper is used over black for purely aesthetic reasons.
Serve in a cup as a side dish or in a heavy bowl as an entrée, along with oyster crackers and a garnish of freshly minced chives.
New England Clam Chowder
10-oz can clam meat
2 rashers salt pork
1 russet potato
1 rib celery
1 yellow onion
8 oz clam juice
2 c chicken stock
1 c milk
½ c half-and-half
2 T butter
¼ c flour
½ t thyme
½ t white pepper
1 Dice the onion and celery. Peel and dice the potato.
2 In a dry pot over medium-low heat, fry the salt pork until crispy and the fat has rendered, about 5-10 min. Set aside to drain, and dice when cool enough to handle.
3 Sauté the onion and celery in the butter and reserved pork fat until translucent, about 5 min. Stir in the thyme, bay leaf, salt, pepper and flour.
4 Slowly work in the stock, clam juice and liquor from the canned clams, deglazing the pot and building a thick roux. Do not allow the roux to darken.
5 Bring to a low boil and add the diced potatoes. Cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 5-8 min. Turn off the heat and stir in the dairy, pork and clams.