Written and Photographed by Carrie Vasios
I’ve gone to Wellfleet, Cape Cod every summer for 26 years. That’s a lot of clam chowder.
You see, while the town mascot of Wellfleet may be the oyster, the town makes a mean bowl of clam soup. That’s because it’s a New England town and any New England restaurant—especially those a stone’s throw from the beach—serves clam chowder. I’ve got my favorite spot in Wellfleet and there’s been a long-standing internal family debate over whose chowder reigns supreme. Being a broth girl, I prefer the less creamy but more deeply clammy flavor of the chowder at PJ’s. My dad likes the thicker, richer soup from Moby Dick’s, and I certainly wouldn’t turn down a bowl.
We’ve tried other versions, but at this point our standards are pretty darn high. If there aren’t enough clams, or there are too many potatoes, or it’s a bowl of cream, forget it. And if they didn’t give me enough oyster crackers (two packs per bowl, at least) then I wouldn’t even think of going back.
And believe it or not, this picky behavior is coming from a girl who likes Manhattan clam chowder. (I’m from Manhattan; that’s my excuse.) The thing is that Manhattan clam chowder contains tomatoes. New Englanders do not abide tomatoes in their chowder. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that, in their opinion, those red tomatoes might as well be blood.
For me, a bowl of clam chowder is so much more than the sum of its parts. I can’t imagine eating it any other way than at a picnic table, sand in my hair, sleepy from the sun, followed up by a big cone of soft-serve ice cream with rainbow jimmies and maybe a round of mini golf. Chowder isn’t technically a seasonal food, but for me, summer on the Cape is the only time to eat it.
But then New York got a record bombardment of snow this winter and into spring, so right now I would give my left foot to be standing, barefoot (singular) in the surf at Newcomb Hollow Beach. To alleviate my seasonal blues, I thought I’d try making a bowl of clam chowder.
It was with a hopeful heart that I took down a few cookbooks, including James Beard’s Fish Cookery for the old-school word, and Bon Appétit for a fresh take. I expected to find a recipe for New England Clam Chowder (even delineated from Manhattan), then proceed as usual. I was wrong.
Every new recipe I found varied from the last. Did I want to use whole milk, cream, or half and half? Potatoes, of course, but how about celery or carrots? Bay leaf? Did I want to thicken it with flour, like a roux, or leave it alone? Canned clams or fresh? Worcestershire sauce? Tabasaco? Paprika? Were these really in recipes for New England Clam Chowder?
The internet provided no answers, other than perhaps there is no such thing as an authentic recipe. And that there are a lot of people out there with much stronger opinions than me. In the end I played around. I knew I liked more milk than cream. I thought that paprika could add a nice zip. Potatoes were the only vegetable I had ever encountered in clam chowder, so I kept it that way. Fresh clams were too much of a hassle, and gourmet canned ones seemed just fine.
The resulting soup was flavorful and well textured, though it was going to be hard to meet my high chowder expectations. It was warming on a cold day, and I found I like the addition of a fresh parsley garnish and a bit of paprika.
Though I’ll admit I’m still craving the real thing, and the sun that comes along with it.
New England Clam Chowder
Prep time: 15 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Makes 4 servings
- 3 (8 oz.) bottles clam juice
- 1 pound starchy potatoes (such as Idaho or Russet), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 3 slices bacon
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 large onion, diced
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 5 (6.5-oz.) cans clams, diced and juices reserved
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- salt and pepper
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped (optional)
- oyster crackers for garnish
Bring the clam juice and potatoes to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are fork-tender, about 10 minutes.
While the potatoes are coming to a boil, cook the bacon in a large pot over medium-high heat until crisp and brown, about 8 minutes. Remove the bacon and drain on paper towels before dicing into 1/4-inch pieces. Add the butter, onions, and bay leaf to the large pot and cook the onions until translucent, about 7 minutes.
Whisk in the flour and stir constantly for about two minutes to make a thick roux. Add the clams and their juice, the potatoes and clam juice, milk, cream, paprika, and reserved bacon. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer gently for 7 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove the bay leaf, season with salt and pepper to taste, and garnish with chopped parsley if desired. Definitely serve with oyster crackers.