Winter — ’tis the season to make clam chowder. I continue to hone my clam chowder recipe, which I originally shared almost five years ago. This chowder originated as a recipe shared in Bon Appétit magazine, but I’ve adapted it enough that I feel content calling it my own.
I’ve probably made this chowder 25 times now — I make it five or six times a year. Each time I make it, it’s a little different. I learn things as I go. My latest version of the recipe is narrative.
J.D.’s Clam Chowder
Read this entire recipe before starting. Prepare all ingredients in advance. This recipe can be time-consuming (it takes 60-90 minutes from start to finish), and until you know where your slack periods are, it’s best to have everything ready to go instead of having to scramble in a panic because you suddenly need your onions.
Open two 51-ounce cans of clams. Reserve the juice into a large pot. Add 5# russet potatoes (do not use Yukon gold — they’re too mealy). Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook until potatoes are just tender (al dente). They will soften more in later steps. Draw off about two cups of liquid from the potato mixture for later use.
Mince a bulb of garlic (a bulb, not a clove). Rub the inside of your largest pot with garlic. Set garlic aside. Chop two yellow onions. Chop a bunch of celery, including leaves (but not including bases, of course).
Over medium heat, melt half a stick of butter in your largest pot (which has been rubbed with garlic). Add 1# bacon, chopped. I prefer thick bacon for this chowder. Pepper bacon is good. (I sometimes use bacon ends from a local butcher — they’re big and meaty.) Brown the bacon. When the bottom of the pot becomes gummy and sticky, brown for another minute or two. Add celery, onions, garlic, and one bay leaf. The vegetables will remove the gummy stickiness. Cook for several minutes, until vegetables soften.
Reduce heat to low. Stir in 1/2 cup flour. Once everything is good and gummy, gradually add the previously reserved potato liquid, whisking occasionally. This will create a thick, gummy gravy-like mass. It will thin as you add more liquid. By adding the liquid slowly, you’re able to keep more of the thickness. (You may also increase the thickness by using more flour. But this chowder isn’t meant to be a thick chowder.)
Stir in clams. Stir in one tablespoon hot pepper sauce, such as Tapatío or Tabasco. (I prefer the former.) Stir in one tablespoon hickory smoke salt. Add potato mixture and stir. Add one quart half-and-half. Add copious fresh ground black pepper to taste. Simmer five minutes, stirring frequently. This allows the flavors to blend.
This chowder is good immediately, but it’s even better after a couple days in the fridge. It keeps for up to a week. This recipe will probably make about 16-20 servings.
Do not skimp on the hot pepper sauce. This is a crucial ingredient. I’m not joking. I also think the hickory smoke salt is important. I use Spice Islands brand. (It may be possible to substitute liquid smoke, but I haven’t tried that yet.) This chowder is even better with fresh clams, but I haven’t perfected ratios and quantities when doing it this way.
Jenn recently made this chowder using fish stock in place of some of the clam juice, and not using any smoke seasoning. It was good, and less salty than my version (which I confess is pretty salty). Her version actually had an unexpected sweetness to it that surprised me. It wasn’t bad, but I plan to stick with clam juice in the future.
This recipe makes a ginormous batch of the stuff. That’s the way we like it. It’s enough to feed a dinner party, with lots left over. When I make this, there’s always tons left over so that Kris and I can eat on it for a week. Which we do.