You might not think that tucking into a steaming hot cup of clam chowder would be all that enjoyable in the dead of summer, but I beg to differ. Two muggy nights ago, returning home with kids sandy from a day at the beach, the request came in for chowder. Luckily, I had this recipe to fall back on. It’s full of salty, chewy clams and chunks of potatoes buried in a creamy broth swimming with fresh dill and summer leeks. It cooks up quickly and makes for a hearty summer meal.
Our love of chowder began during the year we lived in Maine, where the beaches are brimming with fresh clams. When the tide was out, the kids would sit patiently watching air holes in the sand, waiting for the clams buried underneath to squirt water up like a small geyser. They’d then frantically dig down with their hands to unearth the bivalved creatures, competing to see who could collect the most. We always tossed the clams back to the sea, but we talked about what we could make if we brought them home.
Then one evening after a long day at the beach and feeling unenthusiastic about cooking dinner, I stopped into our favorite seafood shack and landed on chowder for supper. It quickly became our go-to meal. I’d bring home a quart of the stuff, or we’d simply dive in at a picnic table overlooking the harbor. My daughter especially grew fond of the taste and became our little critic when we tried a new spot, throwing a thumbs up or down while hunched over her bowl, spooning in as much as she could.
Our regular spot was a seasonal restaurant, and, come October, it closed until the following spring. But as the weather became cooler, the request for chowder came more frequently. Also, there had always been the problem of chowders that are too rich – with many restaurant versions, I’m full after just a few bites (probably because many are thickened with flour). These dilemmas forced me to try my hand at my own recipe, in which I hoped to find a middle ground between a thick and creamy New England chowder and the flavorful clear broth variety known as Rhode Island chowder. I wanted a version that would fill me up, but wouldn’t leave me rolling out of the room.
For the sake of time and ease, I don’t typically go digging for fresh clams. You can, though, and I recommend trying it – it’s loads of fun. (You’ll need to stop in to your town hall to pick up a shellfish license and a map before you go; Rhode Islanders, start here.) Foraging for them makes the clams taste better somehow, no matter how you prepare them, but your local fish market should have fresh chopped clams, too. In a pinch (or far from shore), you can also use canned chopped clams; find them in the grocery store among the canned tuna and salmon. (I recommend the Bar Harbor brand.)
Fresh dill is a must, as it adds the right amount of earthiness to balance out the briny flavor of the shellfish. Oyster crackers or crusty bread, a nutty brown ale, and a view of the ocean put the finishing touches on this hearty soup. Make it ahead of time, pack it in a thermos to go, and enjoy it on the beach for an easy summer dinner by – and from – the sea.
Classic New England Clam Chowder
3 stalks celery, chopped
1/4 cup white onion, chopped
3/4 cup leeks, chopped
1 tablespoon butter
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
1/2 cup white wine
20 ounces chopped clams and their liquid
3 cups of clam juice
1 1/2 cups cream
1 teaspoon of cornstarch
1/4 cup fresh dill, chopped
In a large pot, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion, leeks, and celery, and cook until soft, about 3 minutes. Lower the heat to medium, add the potatoes and wine, and cook for 3 more minutes, allowing alcohol to cook off. Next, add in the chopped clams, clam juice, and half of the fresh dill. Allow the broth to come to a boil then turn heat to low, cover the pot, and simmer until the potatoes soften, about 10-12 minutes. In a separate small bowl, mix cornstarch into cream until dissolved then pour mixture into the soup. Stir well to combine. Allow to cook for another 5–10 minutes. Garnish with remaining fresh dill and serve with oyster crackers or crusty bread on the side.