Before leaving Boston for Chicago I found myself with a bowl of clam chowder in front of me. It was a lazy choice; a knee-jerk order from a tired and homesick diner too exhausted to even read a menu. What came to my table was a wake-up call as clear and piercing as a police siren. This was a soup of depth and potency, the very essence of the sea, a suave, salty, piscine delight.
This was just clams and cream - a recipe uncluttered with herb or spice, pure and straightforward and free of the unwelcome signature of a chef desperate to make his mark. Well, maybe there was a little thyme in there, and the velvety liquor could have seen a bay leaf or two, but the flavour was like someone had stirred cream into a white-crested wave.
You can make the most basic of clam soups with nothing more than finely chopped clams stirred into boiling milk with a little butter and salt. But that is to miss the essential ingredient - the broth the clams have been cooked in. This liquor, obtained when you steam the clams under a tight lid, is what gives the soup its depth.
Most chowders have as much potato in them as seafood. The spud adds body to what might otherwise be written off as a soup suitable only as a first course and means that a bowl of chowder and a few crackers at lunch will keep most people going until dinner.
New England chowders are rarely without a spot of salt pork. You can use fatty, unsmoked bacon as a fair substitute. The fat that melts out will add both silkiness and savour. Personally,
I think it only adds to the general toothsome qualities of one of the world's great soups.
The classic interpretation is to steam the well-scrubbed clams with a glass of water till they open, then chop the flesh. You fry the pork until the fat runs, then saute a little onion and some cubed potato in it, a few sprigs of thyme, then add milk, cream and the cooking liquor from the clams. It is as neat as that.
I probably don't need to mention that clams need the same meticulous preparation as mussels, but I will. In other words buy them from a reputable fishmonger with a fast turnover; check them for any broken shells or any that are not tightly shut. (Chuck them if they are open and don't close immediately when tapped on the side of the sink.)
The enemy of clam chowder is grit. I find that soaking the shellfish in very cold water for half an hour first will encourage them to disgorge any grit from their shells. It is also worth pouring the cooking liquor through a fine sieve or a piece of muslin. That way you won't find yourself grinding grit between your fillings.
You will need some crackers, too. The ones you get in New England are usually puffed up like dolls-house cushions. Back home, a cream cracker will just have to do.
A simple clam chowder
You can use palourdes for this, which are the clams you are most likely to find in fish shops here. Razor clams work well, too. I haven't tried this with tinned clams, though Americans I have spoken to swear by them.
Serves 2 to 4.
100g unsmoked streaky bacon
1kg small clams
a medium onion
2 medium-sized potatoes
several sprigs of thyme
150ml double cream
Wash the clams under running water, discarding any that remain open when tapped hard on the side of the sink, or have damaged shells. Pour 400ml of water into a saucepan, bring to the boil then tip in the clams, slam on the lid and leave for a minute or two. Check the clams, and take them off the heat as soon as they have opened. Lift the shellfish out of the cooking liquor and set them aside. Retain the liquor.
Cut the bacon into postage-stamp-sized pieces and fry over a low heat in a deep, heavy-based pan. Lift out the bacon, leaving fat behind in the pan. Peel the onion and roughly chop, then add to the pan with the thyme leaves (add a little butter if the bacon hasn't released enough fat) and let it cook over a moderate heat until soft but not coloured.
Peel the potatoes and cut into small cubes, then add them to the onion with a little salt and the broth from the clams. Leave them to cook, covered with a lid, for five to seven minutes or so till tender. Pull the clams out of their shells then roughly chop them. If they are small you can leave them whole. Add the milk, cream, bacon and clams to the potato and bring almost to the boil. Simmer for a minute, then season with salt and black pepper.
Linguine Alle Vongole
A classic, but I include it to remind you just how good clams and thin pasta can be.
650g small clams in their shells
1 glass white wine or vermouth
2 cloves garlic
3 tbsp olive oil
a good pinch crushed, dried chillies
a small bunch flat-leaf parsley
Scrub the clams, throwing away any that are chipped or wide open. Leave them to soak in cold water for half an hour or so to clear the grit.
Put a large pan of water on to boil. Drain the clams and tip them into a medium-sized pan set over a moderate heat. Pour in the white wine or vermouth and cover them tightly with a lid. After 2 minutes, no longer, lift the lid and check their progress. If most of the shells are open, turn off the heat. If not, give them a minute or so longer.
Generously salt the boiling water and lower in the pasta. Lift the clams from their liquor and pick out each morsel of clam flesh. Discard the shells, but not the cooking liquor.
Peel the garlic and thinly slice it, then let it soften in a tablespoon or so of the olive oil over a low heat. It must not colour. Stir in a good pinch of dried chillies, then roughly chop the parsley leaves and add them. Let them cook briefly then strain in the cooking liquor from the clams and let it bubble down for a minute.
Test the pasta for doneness: you want it to be tender but on the tacky side. About nine minutes should do it. Drain the pasta, tip it in with the clam liquor then stir in the shelled clam meat. Grind over a little black pepper and pour in the remaining olive oil, toss gently and serve in warm, shallow bowls.