Chowder or Chowdah as you often hear is a mainstay of the New England coastline and one of those dishes that some folks, like myself, hold near and dear to their heart. Similarly, with pizza, everybody has a was they think it should be made and traditionalists will tell you it's not authentic if it's not prepared with a certain list of ingredients or in a cooked in a particular way. I grew up along the southern coast of Connecticut, where seafood shacks and restaurant fed the masses that drove up interstate 95 each and every spring, summer, and fall. Depending on the time of year, steamers, fried clam strips, and creamy clam chowder were my favorites and ordered each and every time my family went out to eat. With the chowder, my interests were in the side pairing of oyster crackers which I allowed to partially soak up the steamy liquid before scooping them up with my spoon.
At 15, I began working at a large scale, "turn + burn" seafood establishment that fed upwards of a 1000 people on an average summer day. Fried food served with French fries or baked potato and a side of coleslaw made the bulk of most people's orders. As I moved my way up the line, I positioned myself as morning prep cook, freeing myself of the evening Fry Station shift that I just about dreaded. I learned a lot during those years which eventually lead me to culinary school post high school graduation. When the time came, I was really excited to learn how to make hat creamy and brothy clam chowder that I ate and ate as a young boy but was discouraged to find out that all we did was cut open a bag, pour out the contents, and heat before serving. That was it. Premade, prepackaged chowder, made elsewhere and shipped out to restaurants around New England.
I would eventually move onward, taste more chowders along the coastline and create my own versions. While devotes will insist that chowder must contain milk or cream, I have become quite fond of the clear broth Rhode Island version that really punctuates the briny flavor of the clams and ocean in which they reside.
This soup came together after a morning spent along the Maine waters collecting surf clams in the sandy ocean floor during a low tide. 30 minutes of work yielded several dozen beauties that eventually made it home and into the kitchen. Surf clams are quite large, only requiring about a dozen to make a gallon of soup. My stash was washed well before being steamed just until the shells opened enough for me to get the meat out of them. Serve alongside these acorn crisps for a delicious but not so traditional variation on the oyster cracker.
How To Make Rhode Island Clam Chowdah
- About 1 dozen surf clams or 2 cups freshly shucked + chopped clams (liquor reserved)
- 4 strips of bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
- 1 large onion, diced
- 3 celery stalks, chopped
- 2 large garlic cloves, minced
- 1 pound potatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2 inch chunks
- 2 quarts water, fish or chicken stock
- 1-quart clam steaming liquid
- 2 bay leaves
- plenty of black pepper
- sea salt, to taste
- Heat up a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the bacon, stir, and allow to render out its fat. Once tablespoon or so has rendered, add the onions and stir to combine.
- Allow the onions to soften before stirring in the celery and garlic. Cook until the garlic is fragrant then add in the chopped clams, potatoes, liquid, and bay leaf.
- Gently simmer the broth for 30-40 minutes, allowing all the flavors to meld together.
- Season with plenty of black pepper and sea salt as needed.
*Save some for the following day as the chowdah gets better after sitting for a night in the fridge!