New England Clam Chowder

June 21, 2012 § 7 Comments

My mother once told me that I have saltwater in my blood.  She didn’t mean, literally, that I have saltwater running through my veins.  She meant that the ocean had become a part of me.  I feel like this is a particularly true statement.   I grew up with the sea as my salty, tumultuous, yet beautiful friend. I once knew a wealth of the sea’s secrets and treasures – signs of the changing tides, hidden sandbars, little hermit crabs that scuttled in the receding waves, fresh mussels that clung to rocky piers, fancy sea glass that was frosted over after years of being washed by sandy tides.  Although I don’t live next to the sea anymore, the ocean still calls for me like a lost friend, and I yearn to know its treasures and secrets like I did as a young child.
Recently I answered one of those distant calls and returned to my home by the sea where my father still lives in Connecticut.  Hermann Broch once said, “Those who live by the sea can hardly form a single thought of which the sea would not be a part.”  Even though I have lived in the Midwest for years now, I reclaimed this mindset as soon as I stepped on Connecticut soil.  Memories of the ocean flooded my mind with my first breath of salty air as images and thoughts of sandy shores, beach sunsets, sun-soaked beach days and fresh seafood gradually replaced meadows, lakes, farm fields and cheese. The same mindset is apparently true for my father as well because the first thing on the agenda of my visit was to stop by Lobster Landing, a local lobster shack owned by Bacci, a lobsterman, that is a neighbor and longtime friend of my father.

Lobster Landing is a quintessential New England seafood staple.  It has been written up by the New York Times and receives rave reviews from all who visit, yet seems to be nicely unaware of all the press and prestige, nestled away in a quiet harbor selling fresh lobsters, steamers and lobster rolls.  Bacci, who owns Lobster Landing, is a true lobsterman who wears a red bandanna around his head, has a windblown and sunburned face and is a vibrant man who shook my hand and gave me a hug when we arrived.  He immediately informed my father that I needed a big lobster dinner because I had been deprived of fresh seafood for so long living in Minnesota.  My father wholeheartedly agreed.  Bacci proudly ushered us over to his lobster tanks, stuck in his hand, and quickly pulled out two very alive lobsters as they flailed their legs and snapped their tails.  He threw them in a brown paper bag as he murmured goodbye sentiments.  Next, he insisted that we must have steamer clams for our lobster dinner and ushered us exuberantly over to another bin where he pulled out handfuls of clams and threw them in another brown paper bag.  Minutes later, we walked out of Lobster Landing with a friendly slap on the back, lemons, potatoes, two lobsters and pounds of clams ready to make a genuine New England lobster dinner.
It was heaven eating this lobster.  The seafood was fresh, salty, rich and deeply satisfying.  I was back home in mind, spirit and stomach.  Even after eating close to two pounds of lobster, potatoes, and what seemed to be hundreds of steamers, there were still pounds of clams leftover.  More than enough clam broth, potatoes and clams to make New England clam chowder.
The next morning my father and I visited the local market and bought bread, cream, thyme, bay leaves, sherry, onions and cherrystone clams to complete our clam chowder recipe.  The steamers and reserved clam broth from the lobster dinner, combined nicely with our freshly bought ingredients and married together as it warmed and simmered in a big pot.  The result was a dinner almost as delicious, if not equal to, my long-awaited lobster dinner of the prior night.  I had never had chowder so fresh and full of clams.  Spoonfuls heaped with clams and potatoes drunk with cream, sherry, thyme and bay leaf flavoring.   The ocean had given me yet another treasure.
Now, at home in Minnesota, far away from salty sea shores and lobster shacks, I hear the ocean calling for me to come back.  For now, I cannot answer the call, but it helps to know I have a fresh dose of saltwater running through my veins.
New England Clam Chowder Recipe
1 pound steamer clams steamed and then removed from shell
1 pound cherrystone clams steamed and then removed from shell
3 cups of juices reserved from steamed clams or lobster boil (use bottled clam juice if there isn’t enough reserved)
3 bacon slices diced
1 onion diced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon fresh thyme leaves chopped
1 pound of cooked red potatoes diced
3 cups heavy cream
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups of french baguette bread cut into crouton sized pieces
Put about 3 ½ inches of water  (or just enough to cover the bottom half of the ingredients)  in the bottom of a big pot and boil.  Put in whole red potatoes and steam for about 10 minutes.  Add steamer clams and cherrystone clams to the pot and cover pot with lid.  Steam clams for about 6 minutes.  Remove clams from shells, throw away shells but reserve clam flesh.  Cool and chop clams.  Remove potatoes, cool and chop.  Reserve broth.
Cook the bacon slowly over medium high heat in a large pot.  Remove bacon when lightly crispy but reserve grease in pot.  Cool bacon slightly and dice and store, momentarily, on a paper towel.
Add onion to the bacon grease in the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is translucent, about 5-7 minutes.  Add flour and cook over low heat for about 2 minutes
Whisk in clam broth and bring to a simmer for about 5 minutes.
Add the fresh thyme, bay leaf and potatoes.  Simmer for about 5 minutes.
Add cream, clams, sherry, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce and pepper.  Simmer for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Make the croutons.  Chop french baguette into crouton sized pieces.  Heat 2 tablespoons of butter on a large skillet over medium heat.  Add baguette pieces and coat with evenly with butter by stirring in skillet.  Add ½ teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper.  Stir croutons again to make sure they are evenly coated with seasoning.  Toast croutons in skillet for about 5-8 minutes, flipping and stirring croutons periodically to make sure all sides are browned and toasted.
Top clam chowder with croutons and enjoy a taste of the sea!

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