Since I first started my blog last August, many hundreds of people have found their way here for one reason, and one reason only. They represent a mind-boggling percent of everyone who ends up on my blog, and they have but one common passion: a fervent need to somehow recreate the totally fabulous chowder that was Mildred’s Chowder House (late of Cape Cod fame) Clam Chowder. Unable to find an authentic version, I attempted to recreate one that would be a close approximation of it in my “Welcome to New England” post when I began my blog. It is clear to me, from the massive numbers of you who want nothing but the original (no complaints about MY recipe, based on the one from Legal Sea Foods, mind you. But for aficionados of the one, the only, the true New England Clam Chowder, there is, clearly, absolutely NO substitute for Mildred’s iconic bowlful. By the way, I completely agree!)
It is for this reason that I decided to dig even further, to find someone who could bring me closer to the real deal. Fast forward to: an article in the Cape Cod Times, in which W. C., of Yarmouth, said that he had worked in Mildred’s kitchen for about 15 years, and was there when the ‘base’ was made daily. This was well after my summertime stint at the lunch counter there in 1958, and by that time, Mildred herself had died. (One of my fondest memories of the place was Mildred, who was in her early eighties at the time, but came into the restaurant every morning at 4 AM to hand make each and every pie for the day. The staff were forbidden to partake of the pies, since they were, as you can imagine, much sought after by the customers. However, every once in a while, one of us would steal off to the basement to slurp down a piece while a friend stood guard. Mildred’s Blueberry Pie, my personal favorite, was to die for!) Anyway, my guess is that while W. C. worked there things had not yet seriously deteriorated in quality (which they evidently eventually did), so I felt fairly confident in using his memory as a starting point from which to re-think the whole chowder puzzle.
He provided a restaurant-sized recipe for the base. I was put off initially by the method called for, which has you simmer the chopped clams, the onions, the potatoes, the clam broth and some water for 3 ½ hours. My first thought was, what shape are the potatoes going to be in after cooking for 3 ½ hours in that broth? I thought they would end up disintegrating. Yet I persevered, thinking that perhaps long-simmering the potatoes might be another (old-time?) way to thicken the base. One of my biggest beefs when it comes to modern versions of chowder is the amounts of flour used to thicken them, a practice particularly common in commercial kitchens, it seems. And so I made the base, as provided by W. C., maximally reducing the volume.
But first, my thoughts (read: fears) about the lack of any mention of salt pork. I was shocked. Appalled. To me, Clam Chowder starts with salt pork, sautéed till crisp, and its flavor is an essential component in my ultimate enjoyment. And actually, this is the reason I didn’t even want to try W. C.’s “recipe” in the first place. But I did.
The result was the most flavorful clam base I could ever imagine. It shocked me that I could get to this chowder without one of the elements I considered essential to a really great one. I was wrong.
The one thing that did not work for me was the one I expected to be a problem: the potatoes. But it wasn’t that they disintegrated, as I thought they would. It was because they acquired a sort of “old” potato flavor that got in the way of the wonderfully intense clam base. So I decided that on my next foray I will put the potatoes into the simmering clams and broth only for the last hour, and see how they fare. I tried to get my hands on some more quahogs today, but the market was out of them, so you will have to wait for and update on the potato issue. I will add the information to this post when I have some to share.
So, if you’re one of the chowder die-hards like me, please join me in this venture. Between us all, if we share our experiences, we will probably get it perfect. Here is the scaled-down recipe I concocted, rather loosely based on the proportions given by W. C.
Take 10 large quahogs (mine weighed 5 1/4 pounds, total, in the shell). Scrub them, then steam them in 1 cup of water for about 8 minutes, or until the shells open, with the cover on the pan, on low heat. (Always throw out any clams that don’t open within 10 minutes – they’re not edible.) Remove the clams from the pot, being careful not to lose any of the precious liquor inside; that’s where all the flavor is. When the clams and broth are cool enough to handle, swoosh each clam around in the broth, to get rid of any residual grit. Give them a good chop on a cutting board, trying not to lose any of the juice they give off; dump any juice right back in with all the other juices. I got about 1 generous cup of clams, chopped.
Line a sieve with a paper towel, and slowly pour the broth through it, to remove any grit from the clams. (Don’t bother trying to use a coffee filter, it is too fine to do the job, and just clogs up.) Give a good final squeeze to the towel to extract any juices from it. I ended up with a little more than 2 cups of broth. Rinse out the pan you steamed the clams in and return the chopped clams and broth to it, add 1/2 cup chopped onion, and simmer it all for 3 1/2 hours, on the lowest possible heat, with a tight cover. After the first 2 1/2 hours, add 1 1/2 cups diced potatoes (I cut them into about 1″ dice), and finish the simmer.
After the 3 1/2 hours, you have your clam base, which if you taste it should be VERY clammy. I kept it in the fridge just as is, and each time I wanted a bowl, put some into a small saucepan and added light cream to taste, and a nice chunk of butter. I think I ended up getting about 5 bowlfuls.
I found it to be really, really delicious. Please let me know what you think.