We know from experience that everyone has their own idea of the perfect clam chowder – and, more to the point, their own idea of what is not the perfect clam chowder. This incarnation keeps things very simple, with clams, salt pork, potatoes and oodles of cream being the main flavor contenders. We would never go as far as to say that this is the definitive recipe for steamer clam chowder—those would be fightin’ words—but we will say it’s a recipe that holds its own. Originally published October 15, 2009.–Renee Schettler Rossi
What Are Steamer Clams?
What exactly are steamer clams? Author Jasper White explains that for this clam chowder, he calls for “soft-shell clams, or steamer clams, which have two oval shells about two to three inches long that gape along the edges. Their most prominent feature is a siphon, about a quarter of the length of the shell, which sticks out of the clam. Whole soft-shell clams are often referred to as “steamers,” because that’s the way they’re most often prepared. When salty old-timers refer to ‘clams,’ soft-shells are what they mean.” This recipe has been updated. Originally published October 15, 2009.
Fill 2 large pots (or 2 sinks) with cold water. Place the clams in one pot of water, discarding any dead ones or clams with cracked shells. Gently move them around in the water and let them soak for a few minutes, then lift them out and place them in the other pot of cold water. Rinse the first pot and fill it again. Move the clams around again, then transfer them back to the clean pot. Continue to switch the clams back and forth, letting them soak for a few minutes each time, and then lifting them out of the pot, until the water remains crystal clear. The process should take 4 or 5 soakings.
Put the 2 cups water in an 8-quart pot, cover, and bring to a rolling boil. Quickly but gently place the clams in the pot and cover again. After 4 minutes, remove the lid and quickly stir the clams with a wooden spoon, trying to lift some of the clams from the bottom to the top so they will cook evenly-but be gentle, the shells are very brittle and crack easily. Cover and continue to steam for another 4 to 5 minutes. (The broth will most likely overflow just as the clams have finished cooking.) All the clams should be open; if not, steam them a minute or two longer. Remove the clams and strain the broth; you should have 4 cups.
When the clams are cool, remove them from the shells and cut off the siphons, as well as the protective skin that covers each siphon, and discard. (You should have about 1 pound of clam meat.) Cover and refrigerate until later.
Heat a 4- to 6-quart heavy pot over low heat and add the diced salt pork or bacon. Once it has rendered a few tablespoons of fat, increase the heat to medium and cook until the pork is crisp and golden brown. With a slotted spoon, transfer the cracklings to a small ovenproof dish, leaving the fat in the pot, and reserve until later.
Add the butter, onion, celery, thyme, and bay leaves to the pot and saute, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, for about 10 minutes, until the vegetables are softened but not browned.
Add the potatoes and the reserved clam broth. The broth should just barely cover the potatoes; if it doesn’t, add enough water to cover them. Turn up the heat and bring to a boil, cover, and cook the potatoes vigorously for about 10 minutes, or until they are soft on the outside but still firm in the center. If the broth hasn’t thickened lightly, smash a few potatoes against the side of the pot and cook a minute or two longer to release the starch.
Remove the pot from the heat. Stir in the clams and the cream and season to taste with black pepper and possibly a pinch of salt (the saltiness of steamers varies). If you are not serving the chowder within the hour, let it cool a bit, then refrigerate; cover the chowder after it has chilled completely. Otherwise, let it sit at room temperature for up to an hour, allowing the flavors to meld.
When ready to serve, reheat the clam chowder over low heat; don’t let it boil. Try not to stir too often, because you don’t want to break open the clam bellies. Warm the cracklings in a low oven 200°F (90°C) for a few minutes.
Ladle the clam chowder into cups or bowls, making sure that the steamers, onions, and potatoes are evenly divided. Scatter the cracklings or bacon over the individual servings and sprinkle with the chopped parsley and oyster crackers.