Rhode Island Clear Clam Chowder

When you order chowder in a Rhode Island restaurant, you may get a creamy chowder, a red chowder or a clear chowder. Although you would think our smallest state might have a consensus on clam chowder, it doesn't. Even jonnycakes, which are unique to Rhode Island, are made in two versions: thick or thin, depending on the cook. Nevertheless, clear chowder made without milk or tomatoes (like the earliest chowders from the 1700s) can still be found in Rhode Island restaurants, and many old-timers claim that it is the true Rhode Island chowder.

Since my wife, Nancy, is from Rhode Island, we spend a good amount of time down there, and I have sampled the local clear chowder many times. It is always served with a small pitcher of warm milk on the side, but I rarely add it. When I make clear chowder, I strive to make it so good in its own right that no one will add the warm milk, which I do serve in deference to custom. This chowder is like a chowder anatomy lesson. You can see all the parts floating in the broth: clams, bacon, potatoes, onions, celery, and herbs. In my zeal to make the tastiest clear chowder, I add a generous dose of fresh herbs as well as bacon, fennel seeds, and a squeeze of lemon. Certain dyed-in-the-wool Yankees sneer at the idea of lemon in chowder, but I have found lemon in several New England chowder recipes that are far older than they are.

Cook's Notes

I have listed crushed red pepper flakes as an optional ingredient. However, unlike Portuguese and other red chowders, which are intended to be spicy, clear chowder isn't. And since this dish appeals to a wide variety of people, including children, I leave the spicing up to the individual cook. The fennel seeds can be crushed with a mortar and pestle if you have one, or place them on a cutting board and crush by rubbing them against the board with the side of your knife, then chop them.

I cook this chowder slowly in order to keep the broth clear, and I don't worry if the potatoes haven't thickened it as much as other chowders; a thinner consistency seems in keeping with the true spirit of this chowder.

The 8 pounds of quahogs in this recipe make 4 cups of clam broth, but you'll need 6 cups of liquid for the chowder. If possible, supplement the quahog broth with fresh or bottled clam broth rather than stock or water.

Serve with toasted common crackers or Pilot crackers. Jonnycakes, although another Rhode Island specialty, don't really go with chowder, but Clam Fritters or Corn Fritters made with jonnycake meal (stone-ground white flint Indian corn) make an authentic and delicious addition.

For equipment, you will need an 8-quart pot with a tight-fitting lid (for steaming open the clams), a fine-mesh strainer, a 4- to 6-quart heavy pot (for the chowder), a wooden spoon, a small pot (to warm the milk), and a ladle.

Makes 12 cups; serves 12 as a first course or 6 to 8 as a main course

8 pounds small quahogs or large cherrystone clams
4 ounces slab (unsliced) bacon, rind removed and cut into 1/3-inch dice
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium onions (12 to 14 ounces), cut into 1/2-inch dice
3 stalks celery (6 ounces), cut into 1/3-inch dice
6 to 8 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed and chopped (1 tablespoon)
2 dried bay leaves
1/8 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
1/2 to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
2 pounds Yukon Gold, Maine, PEI, or other all-purpose potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 cups Clam Broth, bottled clam juice, Traditional Fish Stock, Chicken Stock, or water (as a last resort)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Kosher or sea salt if needed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chervil (optional)
2 to 3 cups whole milk

1. Scrub the clams and rinse clean. Steam them open. Strain the broth; you should have 4 cups (and 1 pound of clams). Dice the clams into 1/2-inch pieces. Cover with plastic wrap and keep refrigerated until ready to use.

2. Heat a 4- to 6-quart heavy pot over low heat and add the bacon. Once it has rendered a few tablespoons of fat, increase the heat to medium and cook until the bacon is a crisp golden brown. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat, leaving the bacon in the pot.

3. Add the butter, onions, celery, thyme, bay leaves, and fennel seeds and sauté, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, for about 10 to 12 minutes, until the onions are softened but not browned.

4. Add the potatoes, the reserved clam broth, and the additional 2 cups broth, and continue to cook over medium heat until the chowder begins to simmer; if it begins to boil, turn down the heat slightly so that it maintains a steady simmer. Cook for about 15 minutes longer, until the potatoes are very tender.

5. Remove the pot from the heat, stir in the diced clams, and season to taste with black pepper and the lemon juice. (It is unlikely that you will need to add any salt; the clams usually provide enough.) If you are not serving the chowder within the hour, let it cool a bit, then refrigerate; cover the chowder after it has completely chilled. Otherwise, let it sit for up to an hour at room temperature, allowing the flavors to meld.

6. When ready to serve, reheat the chowder over low heat; do not let it boil. Stir in the parsley, chives, and chervil. At the same time, heat the milk over low heat; do not let it boil.

7. Ladle the chowder into cups or bowls making sure that the clams, potatoes, onions, and bacon are evenly divided; do not fill the cups or bowls more than three-quarters full. As is customary in Rhode Island, serve the hot milk in a small pitcher so each person can add as much as he or she likes to their chowder, if any.

Variation: Low-Fat Clam Chowder

Although many chowders can be altered to create low-fat versions, this recipe is particularly well suited for that purpose because it is loaded with savory flavorings. The techniques and substitutions used here can serve as a guideline for reducing fat in other chowder recipes. Since this recipe is based on clam broth, you won't need to add more, but to lower the fat in chowder recipes that are finished with cream, substitute an equal amount of broth, stock, or water. A nonstick pan allows you to use the minimal amount of fat to sauté the vegetables. If you have a nonstick pot that is large enough to make this chowder (4 quarts or more), you can make it in one pot. Otherwise, sauté the vegetables in a nonstick frying pan, then transfer them to a pot and proceed with the recipe.

Prepare the clam broth and diced clams in Step 1. Omit the bacon and butter; instead, sauté the vegetables in 1 tablespoon of olive or other vegetable oil; if you do not use a nonstick pan, you may have to increase the oil slightly to prevent the ingredients from sticking. Proceed as directed, omitting the milk to be served on the side.

Source of recipe: Jasper White