I think hard sells are tacky and I usually try to eschew begging. But in this case, I am making an exception: please come have clam chowder at Vinaigrette this week. Seriously, please. I’ve been babying these damn clams since they arrived, all fresh and clammy and cute, and worrying about them for weeks before that. Making sure they don’t suffocate, or drown, that they stay perfectly cold, that we squeeze them and scrub them just so. (How can a creature that buries itself in the mud with a slimy foot and sucks seawater through a straw for food be so high maintenance?) My staff is about to kill me, they are so sick of hearing about clams. Do it for them. And after all, don’t we all need more bivalve mollusks in our lives?
Enough about the clams, lets talk about the chowder. We have used Daniel Bouloud’s recipe, which is involved and precise, simple and perfect. It’s rich and creamy, but I swear somehow clean and crisp, maybe because it doesn’t have any flour, so it’s never gluey and doesn’t leave you feeling like you have swallowed a softball.
We set ourselves a lofty but achievable goal: to make the best damn clam chowder in all of New Mexico or Texas, using fresh live clams and a scratch-made clam stock. And a lot of love.
It’s so unfeasible for us to do on a regular basis, I feel compelled to share it with y’all.
New England Clam Chowder
From Chef Daniel Bouloud; Cooking New York City by Daniel Bouloud, with occasional commentary by me
2 TB butter
2 onions: 1peeled and sliced, 1peeled and cut into ¼ inch dice
1 tsp red pepper chile flakes
2 sprigs thyme
3 pounds littleneck clams, scrubbed and rinsed well (see note)
3 pounds larger chowder clams, scrubbed and rinsed well (see note)
2 cups quarts dry white wine
3 Yukon Gold potatoes (bout 3 taters)peeled and cut into ½” dice (or smaller)
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
¼ pound slab bacon, cut into ¼” dice (not larger! Little guys! )
2 medium leeks, white and light green parts, sliced
2 stalks celery, peeled, trimmed and cut into ¼” dice
salt and pepper
(Note: there are a lot of different opinions about clam grit and how to get rid of it. I finally settled on soaking the clams right before cooking in cold water, scrubbing them, draining, and being ready to put in the pot right then. But do not store the clams for a long time in water!)
1) Poach Clams and Make Clam Stock (can do this step a day ahead)
Melt the butter in a large pot over medium. Add the SLICED onion and cook, stirring frequently, until tender but not colored, 10 to 15 minutes. Increase the heat to high, add the red pepper flakes, half the thyme sprigs (8 sprigs), white wine and 1/3 of the clams.
Cover with a lid and steam until the clams open, about 6 minutes.
Using tongs, remove all the clams and set aside in a stainless steel bowl so you can reserve all the good juice.
Then add the next batch of clams, steam until open, remove and set aside separately if you are using two different sizes of clam. Keep doing this (in about three batches) until you have worked through all the clams.
Strain the poaching liquid through a very fine mesh sieve lined with a cheesecloth to capture all the sediment. Reserve the poaching liquid and compost the strained out onions.
When the clams are cool, remove the meat and compost the shells. If you are using razor necks, email me and I will explain how to do it. If you have big clowder clams, chop them up a little into better bites.
The Littlenecks or other small clams should be left whole.
Save all the little juice that comes off the clams and add this to the poaching liquid.
Refrigerate your clams while you make the rest of the soup.
2) Simmer potatoes with milk
In a large saucepan, bring the potatoes, milk, heavy cream, garlic and remaining thyme sprigs to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender enough to be pierced easily with a knife and the liquid is thick and creamy, about thirty minutes (maybe less).
Using a slotted spoon, remove half of the potatoes and set aside. Discard the thyme.
In the blender, puree the remaining potatoes and liquid until smooth. BUT DO NOT OVERBLEND OR YOU DEVELOP THE STARCHES INTO A GOOEY MESS.
3) The Final Step—bringing it all together
Warm a large stockpot over medium heat and add the bacon. Cook, stirring, just until the bacon starts to render its fat, for about 12 to 18 minutes (it won’t be quite crispy), then add the diced onion, leeks and celery and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes (maybe longer in the high desert). Stir in the reserved clam meat, both the diced and pureed potatoes and half the reserved poaching liquid. Add more poaching liquid as needed to achieve the proper consistency
Don’t make it too thick—nice and creamy but not like wall paper paste or glue!
Season with salt and pepper. Use your judgement but go 1/2 teaspoon at a time until its correct.