Clam chowder is sort of tough. Sure, anyone can make potato soup with some clam scraps….just add enough bacon and it will be fine, right? I have to say that this sort of clam chowder is, well, offensive. It has no individuality, no style and no identity. You could likely pour a better version out of a can.
There is quite a challenge to be had in trying to make a dish like clam chowder unique. The main issue is that you really need to work within the parameters of the dish. You need to make something that, at the end of the day can be easily identified as clam chowder yet have something tangible that is your own. When you are dealing with a cream-based clam soup with potatoes, there is simply not much room to work. You need to keep the clams, the potatoes, enough of the cream to keep the soup rich, and get it thick without allowing it to get starchy, or worse, breaking the soup. This is a pretty tight box to work in…and a challenge worth taking on. Although the chowder at road-side stands along the coast is wonderful (and it really is), there is everything right about creating something that reflects a bit of yourself.
As luck would have it, my father and his friends love to dig razor clams. Even better is the fact that they do not like to eat them. The end result is a frozen stockpile of big, meaty clams residing in my freezer. Razor clams, butter clams, and horse clams are all great for making chowder. Some folks bitch about the fact they can be tough and rubbery, but they soften with a short amount of cooking and the flavor is great.
Although it may seem strange to say so, the clam chowder we make at our house relies on vegetables to carry the day. There is no amount of butter or bacon that will overcome a weak soup, and for us, turnips, carrots, garlic, and red onion blend to create a rich palette of flavors that is then deepened with the addition of cream, bay, and dill. Sweet red pepper, more dill and some gently applied black pepper round out the flavors.
Now to make this all come together properly, you need to build the soup incrementally. This will not take a huge amount of time, but it does need to be done in stages to avoid mushed out potatoes, crunchy carrots, rubbery clams, and other such abominations. Start by sweating, if not browning the garlic and onions in butter over a medium to medium high heat. Add the chopped andouli sausage and bay and cook to let them properly develop their blended flavors. Use a good, smoky andouli, or if not available, a smoked bratwurst.
Once you have a good sludgy base built up, add your clam juice (I buy this), your clams, and some water. Depending on the variety of clam you are using, you will need to simmer them for a while until they get past the “rubbery” stage and soften slightly. Do not proceed until your clams start to give it up or your chowder will suck.
On to the vegetables. Add the potatoes and carrots and cook until they begin to soften, then add the turnips. The turnips do not require much time to cook but will add a lot of depth to your flavor profile. When your vegetables are soft to the fork, add the thyme and pepper and get ready to finish the soup. To do this, remove about 1/2 of the cooked vegetables using a slotted spoon and puree them in a blender or food processor. Add this mixture back in and then add your chopped bell pepper. Cook for a minute or two.
Now, the above may seem odd, but you do not want to fall into the trap of trying to thicken your chowder with either cream or with flour-based rue; rue will taste starchy, and cream can break, leaving you with a clotted cheesy mess. Use your vegetables to thicken your soup, and life will be better, if not good. If your chowder isn’t thick enough at the end, pull out a cup or so, whisk in 2 tsp of cornstarch, return it to the soup and cook for about 5 to thicken.
Normally, you will not need to do this, simply reduce the heat and gradually add your cream. Continue to heat the chowder until it is the desired temperature. Stir in a grip of chopped dill right at the end and serve.
This chowder goes great with corn bread, although I have a really good savory scone that would work as well; sort of a bacon and dill thing. Let us know what you think of this chowder formulation. I think it captures a lot of the flavors that we tend to enjoy around here.
- 12 oz. razor clams, chopped
- 2 andouli sausage, chopped (or similar spicy sausage)
- 1 large red onion, chopped
- 6 to 7 cloves garlic, chopped
- 3 to 5 Tbs. butter
- 2 to 3 medium potatoes, cut into ½ inch cubes
- 1 medium turnip, cut into ½ inch cubes
- 1 large carrot, cut into pieces
- 8 fl. oz. clam juice
- 4 bay leaves
- ½ to ¾ cups half and half
- 2 Tbs. minced fresh dill
- ½ red bell pepper, chopped
- pinch dried thyme
- pinch crushed black pepper
- Heat butter in a medium stock pot over medium to medium high heat. Add garlic and cook until browned. Reduce heat to medium, add onions and cook until onions are softened and translucent. Add the chopped sausage and bay leaves and cook an additional 5 minutes to combine flavors.
- Add clam juice, clams and about 8 oz. of water. Bring to a simmer and cook until clams are slightly softened.
- Add potatoes, carrots, and cook until potatoes begin to soften. Add turnips and cook an additional 3 to 5 minutes. Add thyme and pepper.
- Using a slotted spoon, remove about ½ of the cooked vegetables and a small amount of fluid and place in a blender or other food processor. Puree until smooth and add back into main soup. Stir to incorporate. Add chopped red bell pepper.
- Reduce heat to low and, when mixture is no longer simmering, gradually add cream. If soup is insufficiently thick, remove about ½ cup, place in a cup and whisk in 1 tablespoon of corn starch. Add corn starch mixture back into soup and gradually heat to allow to thicken.
- When thickened to desired texture, stir in chopped fresh dill and serve.