Think about it: when was the last time you had a really delicious clam chowder? Can you picture where you were when you ate it? What was the weather like? Who were you with? What was it about the flavors in the soup that worked for your palate? Did you make it from scratch or were you dining out?
While the word “chowder” becomes something of a catchall for a conceptual bracket of “soup,” there exist many specific styles of approaching this comforting dish. Wikipedia touches on eight or nine clearly delineated versions of “clam chowder,” each with its own personality; in 1939, just five years after clam chowder reached notoriety in the United States, Maine’s state legislature took its clam chowder identity so seriously, it was posed that the use of tomatoes in the stuff ought to be banned. (Fortunately for Mainers and tomato-lovers alike, this motion did not pass.)
But something that unifies even those variants of “chowder” which hang on the periphery is the fact that sitting down to eat a bowl is usually something of an event. Whether taking a boardwalk stroll and eating from a cardboard cup or settling in on a wintry night for an intimate meal, clam chowder marks a momentous moment. How often does one casually have clams in their fridge, after all?
Making this soup successfully is all about prep and timing.
First, the minced onion, carrot, celery, and fennel are sautéed in a modest amount of olive oil until they start to turn translucent and soft. Add garlic and bacon, cooking until the fat of the bacon becomes clear, but doesn’t brown. Add wine, tomato puree, fish stock, and potatoes and simmer…
When potatoes are just tender, stir in cream, herbs, salt, pepper, and hot sauce. Rather than chopping thyme as Tom Douglas suggested, I tied a few sprigs in a bundle with the stems from my parsley leaves and dropped that in the pot.
Then the assembly line of seafood goes: clams, shrimp, cod, and crab, in that order, accompanied by handfuls of hearty spinach. Add an optional squeeze of lemon, garnish with fennel fronds and cream of some kind, if you like (I used about 1 Tbs creme fraiche) and eat with good company.
A Take on Tom Douglas’ Creamy Seafood Chowder
Author’s note: Tom advises us to heat the bowls before pouring the chowder in, and don’t forget the herbed scones!
- 3 tablespoons
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 celery rib, finely chopped
- 1 large carrot, peeled and finely chopped
- ½ bulb of fennel, cored and finely chopped
- 5 medium cloves of garlic, pressed or minced
- 1 cup thick cut bacon
- 2 cups dry white wine
- 2 cups canned tomato puree
- 5 cups ham hock stock or fish stock
- ¾ pound thin-skinned potatoes, cut into ½ inch cubes
- 1 cup heavy cream
- ¼ cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme or 4 large sprigs of thyme, tied in a bundle
- salt and pepper
- 1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce, or to taste
- 1 lb small steamer or baby clams, scrubbed and rinsed
- 1 lb large shrimp, shelled and deveined, with tails on
- ½ pound white fish fillets, such as halibut, cod, etc, cut into 1½ inch pieces
- 8 cups loosely packed spinach leaves (about 12 ounces)
- 3 cooked king crab legs (1-1½ pounds), thawed if frozen, each leg cut into 3 sections crosswise and split in half lengthwise OR 1 previously cooked Dungeness crab, disassembled with meat reserved
- ½ lemon
- Sour cream or crème fraiche (optional)
- Fennel fronds
- 12 parsley scones and butter (optional)
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the fennel, onion, celery, and carrot and sauté until the vegetables start to turn translucent, 5-7 minutes. Add the garlic and bacon and sauté a few more minutes, until bacon fat turns clear rather than white, but does not brown. Stir in tomato puree, wine, stock, and potatoes, and bring to a gentle simmer. Cover the pot and cook until the potatoes are just tender, about 12 minutes.
Stir in the cream and herbs, season to taste with salt, pepper, and hot sauce. Add the clams, cover the pot, and cook until they open, about 4 minutes. Season the shrimp and fish with salt and pepper, then add them to the pot, taking care the seafood is submerged as much as possible in the simmering liquid. Cover and simmer for 2 more minutes. Open the lid, stir in the spinach. Cover and continue to simmer for 1 minute. Add cooked crab meat, turn off the heat and let the pot sit, covered, for 5 minutes.
Remove the lid and check that the shrimp and fish are cooked through and that the crab is warm. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and hot sauce. Using a slotted spoon and ladle, divide all the fish, shellfish, and chowder among 6 large shallow soup plates, discarding any clams that have not opened. Garnish with a squeeze of lemon, a spoonful of crème fraiche, yogurt, or sour cream, and/or fennel fronds.