I have lived in Boston for nearly 10 years now, and just like Lobster Rolls in the summer, this is one of those dishes that makes me love living in a place with truly distinct regional cuisine. New England Clam Chowder is particularly heart-warming on cold winter days, like today. Chowder purists – of which there are many in these parts – may take offense to my addition of shrimp but to be honest I didn’t want to spend $30 on clams – so I used fewer clams and substituted some chopped shrimp for seafood flavor and texture. I took cues from a few different recipes, some used wine, others chose salt pork over bacon, and some used multiple types of potatoes. This recipe makes the best use of what I had from my share as well as what I had on hand in my kitchen. If you’re calling me a heretic for the addition of shrimp and fennel, I feel you; I have those same strong feelings about chiles rellenos. For a really traditional chowder, skip the shrimp, substitute more onion for fennel, and double the amount of clams by weight, while keeping everything else the same. However, as a New England Clam Chowder lover I am a fan of this recipe – it’s not super thick, it is slightly unorthodox, but it is very, very tasty. Pass me a spoon and a Guinness and I will make it though the winter just fine.
First step is to make a broth and cook the clams. This is the broth that will later be added with the pork and potatoes and will be the important flavor center of your chowder. This picture shows everything you will need for the clam base.
I am using 1 cup of white wine with 3 cups of water and a lot of vegetables to make a very flavorful base. I also wanted to add the shrimp tails from the shrimp that I am using in the chowder. Ideally I would want shrimp that hadn’t already been peeled so that I could use the whole peel, not just the tail in the stock – but these are the shrimp I had. I used just the tops of a fennel bulb for the broth, and then part of the fennel bulb in the chowder.
Make sure you have a sauce pot with a good fitting lid, and that is at least 3 quarts capacity. Combine all of the vegetables, wine, water, herbs, and shrimp skins then bring to a boil. Reduce to a very low simmer and let it go for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, increase the heat so the broth is at a steady simmer but not a full boil. Add all of the clams and cover. Allow to cook for 8 minutes. After this time remove the cover, and the clams should all be opened.
Remove the opened clams and place them in a bowl. If there are any unopened clams, replace the lid and return the pot to the burner. Allow to cook covered for 3 – 5 more minutes. If the unopened clams remain closed, discard them. Strain the liquid into a container – there should be about 1 quart of broth – and press down on the vegetables to release any excess liquid. Make sure no little clams are mixed in with your veggies before you discard them. Pick the cooked clams out of the shells and set aside – add any left over clam liquid to the strained broth. Chop the clams up into small pieces. If you see any bits of mealy brown waste-like matter, discard it.
While the broth is simmering you can get the rest of the chowder ingredients ready – peel and dice potatoes, finely diced salt pork, shrimp, onion, and fennel. Also, measure out the flour and butter.
I used an enameled cast iron pot, but any good soup pot will work. Start by cooking your salt pork over medium-high heat to render out the fat and brown the bits of pork. Once the pork is well browned, you want about 2 tablespoons of fat left over – if there is much more, remove some excess fat until there is around 2 tablespoons is left.
Once the vegetables have cooked, sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and stir to combine. Cook for 1 minute while stirring then slowly whisk the clam base into the vegetable/flour mixture. Pour in all but the last 1/4 cup of clam base – you will be able to see some sand and sediment that will remain at the bottom of the liquid.
Add the chopped potatoes and bring to a steady simmer. Allow to cook for 20 – 25 minutes, until the potatoes are soft but not falling apart. During this cooking time stir periodically and skim any scum or foam that comes to the surface. Once the potatoes have cooked, remove the thyme sprigs (which I forgot to do, you can see in the picture) and add the heavy cream. Simmer for another 5 minutes then add the chopped shrimp and clams. Allow to cook a few more minutes until the shrimp are pink and opaque. Taste it and add black pepper and salt if necessary. I added about a teaspoon of salt to mine – salt will vary depending on how much salt you get from your pork. Serve hot with saltines or oyster crackers – eat within a couple days.