If there’s a better soup to serve on a cold November night, I don’t know what it is. This centuries-old dish was born on the New England coast, where clams are abundant. Like many traditional dishes, it’s named for the vessel it was cooked in, a chaudière, a cauldron-shaped pot that could be suspended above a fire. Its ingredients are, also, true to traditional regional dishes, simple, abundant, and inexpensive: salt pork, potatoes, clams, and milk. I like to serve it with oyster crackers.
Use quahogs for this if they’re available; if not use the biggest clams available. Use 1 to 1½ big clams per person (use your common sense—generally, the more clams, the better).
Contemporary chowders usually contain bacon, but salt pork is what would have been used in colonial days. When Tim Ryan, now president of the Culinary Institute of America, commented on my book
Salt pork is essentially salted fatback, with very little meat. I recommend that you make your own salt pork, using uncured, unsmoked salted pork belly—and then you’ll really have a taste of ye olde chowder.
Put the quahogs, thyme, and
In the pot you will cook the chowder in, combine the pork and the remaining ¼ cup water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. When the water cooks off, lower the heat and cook until the pork is cooked and the fat has completely rendered out. Add the onion and cook it in the fat till tender.
While the pork is cooking, remove the clams from their shells and chop them coarsely; if you wish, remove any of the brown stuff in the clam’s stomach, mainly plankton and other digested food (some people like the flavor it adds and include it, but I usually discard any that is easily scraped away).
Add the flour to the pork fat to make a roux and cook until it smells like cooked pie crust and is evenly coated with fat.
Add the potatoes and quahogs and simmer gently until the potatoes are tender, 10 minutes or so. Add the cream and continue to cook until it’s simmering again. Taste the potatoes and continue cooking until they’re tender. If the chowder becomes too thick, add more milk or quahog liquid. Add plenty of cracked black pepper if you like. Serve.
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