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Snowy Weather Chow: Boston Clam Chowder

2010 February 5

Many, many moons ago, when I was spending far too much time in Boston (first because of a boy and later because of Lindy Hop and one of the best gal pals ever) I got hooked on the clam chowder at the venrable Union Oyster House. The creamy, clammy deliciousness was a revelation in the snowy white north. I swore off the canned stuff and hit UOH every chance I got.

Eventually, I had to grow up and get a real job, impeding my ability to run up to Beantown any time I pleased. I missed my friends, but was delighted to discover that the chowder recipe was pretty easy to get my hands on, what with the place putting out a cookbook and all. The recipe, while surprisingly easy (even in a small kitchen!), unfortunately calls for 64 ounces of clam juice and serves 12. It also didn’t seem quite right when I made it – something was missing, even when I followed the recipe to the letter and ended up with a vat of the stuff. Maybe it was just the ambiance of Union St. that was missing, who knows. Or the gal pal (definitely not the boy….)

There was a little tinkering, but sadly the Chowder Project was back-burnered for years. That is, until a native New Englander friend working in D.C. got a hankering for an old-fashioned clam bake on the Maryland shore. I whipped up the 12-serving version and went back to fiddling with the recipe for several months – cutting it down, adding elements from other chowders, layering on some flavors of my own until I was happy.

I learned a lot too, about the importance of not overcooking clams, about the power of the flavor of celery and bay, why the dairy doesn’t have to be properly scalded but it does have to be at least warmed up, and that I could get away with using canned clams (though it’s not quite the same as fresh-shucked or even frozen, I am the first to admit). And I discovered nifty Asian bag thingys that mean I never have to struggle with cheesecloth and kitchen twine again.

At this point, I doubt the Union Oyster House proprietors would even want to be associated with my clam chowder. Especially when I don’t even serve it with proper crackers – scandal! –  or when there’s canned chopped clams running around in there. But when I’m curled up with a steaming bowl of clam chowder on a snowy winter’s night like we’re about to have in D.C., that first spoonful still takes me north to Boston, and back in time.

Boston Clam Chowder
Inspired by the Union Oyster House
Serves 6 (or three really, really hungry people)

1 pound red potatoes
4 cups clam juice
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs thyme
15 whole peppercorns
2 pounds freshly cooked or frozen clams, diced
2 ounces salt pork
1 medium onion, diced
2 large ribs celery, chopped, leaves included if they’re on there
3 ounces butter*
3 ounces flour*
2 cups half-and-half, warmed
10 drops Tabasco sauce (or to taste; I start with this amount and go from there)
2 tsp Worcestershire (or to taste; I start with this amount and go from there)
Kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper, to taste

Lay a half-inch (or so) dice on the potatoes and put them in a stockpot. Put the bay leaves, thyme and peppercorns in a bouquet garni bag or tie into a cheesecloth pouch if you’re feeling really ambitious. Add the bag and the clam juice to the stock pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes are barely done. Fish out bouquet garni. Remove from heat and add clams and their juices. Set aside.

Meanwhile, skin the salt pork, dice it fine and cook in a saute pan over medium heat until the fat is rendered. Add onions and celery and cook until onions are translucent, about five minutes. Add the butter and let it melt completely before adding flour (if mixture seems too runny, add flour until reaching the desired consistency). When flour is completely incorporated, let cook at least one minute to cook off the “flour” taste and slightly brown the roux.

Bring potatoes, clams and juice back to a boil. Add the roux to the stockpot, stirring continuously – it will thicken rapidly. Bring to a simmer, add the warmed half-and-half. Season with Tabasco, Worcestershire, salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with a hunk of sourdough bread and a salad (you mother called, she said you need to eat your vegetables if you’re going to eat cream-based soups) on a cold night.

* Yes, you really do need to weigh it. Sorry, gang, but it makes a difference. This is a general roux rule you should be abiding by anyway.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Linda Daegele permalink
    February 9, 2010

    Sounds wonderful! Love the photos too! I will have to try this next time hubby goes TDY, since he doesn’t eat seafood of any kind…

  2. February 15, 2010

    YUM! We Aussies don’t have such things here, sadly enough. I tried to get my fill of clam chowder when I lived in your fine country, but I clearly didn’t eat nearly enough. I miss it so much! xo

  3. Gayle permalink*
    February 24, 2010

    @Budgie — I never realized those delicious bivalves were a Norther Hemi thing until just now! Do they not even import them in tins? I will be sure to fill you up with soup the next time you are in the States…

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