There is a reason why every run-down, disreputable, reeking, inexplicably charming fish joint in North America serves New England-style clam chowder, and that's that New England-style clam chowder is goddamn delicious. Also, there are two other reasons.
The second reason why every anchor-bedecked, crab-schlepping hellhole on earth serves New England-style clam chowder is that even a leathery, one-eyed sea-dog with hooks for hands and zero actual kitchen training and hooks also for feet can make New England-style clam chowder, which requires no culinary techniques more esoteric than whisking a pot of food without lighting oneself on fire. The third reason is that New England-style clam chowder is made of the types of (figurative) shit—clams, some manner of pork, a couple of familiar aromatics, a pair of milk products, flour, and so on—that can be found readily damn near anywhere within a day's drive of the ocean.
That is to say, you do not need to be in New England to have—to make—good New England-style clam chowder. You do not even need to know where New England is on a map of the United States to make good New England-style clam chowder. Hell, you probably could get away with not being able to spell "New England," "United States," "chowder," or "map," and still make good New England-style clam chowder. All you need are some familiar ingredients, some familiar kitchen implements, and what passes for sentience in a culture in which people pay Thom Loverro to write things, and you can make good New England-style clam chowder.
Apart from the Thom Loverro part, this is great news. New England clam chowder is called "New England clam chowder" because it was invented in New England—not because it can only be made there, or because the ingredients required to make a good rendition of it can only be found there. The weenies may say otherwise, but they are wrong. New England clam chowder belongs to everybody.
And, hey! You've got kitchen implements! You know how to get familiar ingredients! You struggle to spell simple words! You can make good chowder. Let's make some good-ass clam chowder.
The first thing you'll need to do, of course, is acquire clams. Let's talk about that.
Perhaps you will think to yourself that, as a person of high standards who demands Nothing but the Best from Life, you cannot settle for anything other than fresh, live clams, still in their shells, for your clam chowder. If that is how you wish to go about making clam chowder, bully for you, and godspeed along your way; you'll need to buy several dozen live clams, keep them alive until you're ready to use them, steam them to doneness, reserve the steaming liquid, remove the clams from their shells, chop them, and set them aside. This is an enormous pain in the ass.
On the other hand, perhaps you will think to yourself that, as a person with a grownup life positively sodden with responsibilities and constraints and haggardness and ambivalence about ever getting out of bed again, you'd like to simplify things a tad and just buy a bunch of cans of chopped clams at the friggin' supermarket. (Perhaps you only just now discovered that this is the sort of person you are, when you read in the previous paragraph all the steps involved in turning live clams into clams that are ready for use in making clam chowder.) If you would like to use canned clams, that is a very pragmatic and sensible choice, and godspeed along your way. You will have to drain your canned clams and reserve the liquid in a big bowl or bottle or watertight boot, and set the clams aside.
Truthfully, whether you use live clams or canned clams will not make much of a difference in the tastiness of your finished clam chowder, because truthfully, the creamy, clammy broth, and not the actual physical clams, will be the star of your clam chowder. This will strike you as a compelling argument for the much cheaper and more user-friendly canned variety, as it should.
What I am saying here is that you should use canned clams. You'll need, what, maybe eight or nine or 10 of the little canned-tuna-sized cans, which seems like a lot of cans of clams, until you discover that each one contains a single clam chip the size of an electron, and also 63 gallons of clam liquid. Drain the clams, save the liquid in a separate container, and set both the clams and the clam liquid aside for now.
Also, you'll need to acquire some variety of salty pig product for your clam chowder. You've got some options, here. Sliced ham is OK, as are salt pork, uncured pork belly, and Pancetta ham; if you're using one of those, get, oh, a half-pound of the stuff. Thick-sliced bacon is OK, too—however, you'll want to use half as much (a quarter-pound) of it, because it's strong as hell, and even if you think you want your clam chowder to taste like a mouthful of vaguely fishy bacon gravy, actually, that is kind of gross. Suit yourself; if you're looking for a suggestion, Pancetta is pleasantly bacon-y but less overpowering than bacon, and is a great choice, if the entire Pancetta experience hasn't been ruined for you by hearing Giada De Laurentiis say pahn-CHEET-tah 900,000 times per second on your television for the past decade.
So you've got your clams and your pig product of choice. Next, chop a bunch of stuff. Hack a white onion and two stalks of celery to whatever meets your definition of "medium chop"; dice your pig product into teeny little cubes (or, if you can't be bothered with all that, go ahead and give it a spin in the food processor until it's pretty well minced); chop two or three or four Russet potatoes into dice-sized cubes.
OK, that's all the annoying prep-work. Time to start cooking! Haul out your biggest, heaviest stockpot or Dutch oven and cook the diced or minced pig product over low-ish heat until a bunch of its fat has rendered into liquid in the bottom of the pot. You're not looking for crispiness, here; you just want to liquefy most of the fat in the pork, so that when you add flour to this pot in a few minutes, the flour will be able to absorb that fat and prevent it from turning your clam chowder greasy.
After a few minutes, your pork will be cooking in a puddle of its own rendered fat. Add some other stuff to the pot: your chopped onion and celery, plus an entire stick of unsalted butter, plus a pinch of salt. But wait, you're shrieking, pounding your fists on the table and making a scene in the prison library—why would I use unsalted butter if I'm just gonna add a pinch of salt along with it? Good question, jerk! The answer is: The dry, crystallized salt you add to the pot will help accelerate the cooking of the onion and celery, by drawing the liquid out of them; the salt suspended in salted butter doesn't do this, so if you used salted butter, you'd still have to add a pinch of salt, and then there's the very real possibility that, between the salted butter and the salty pig product and the pinch of salt, you'd come away with clam chowder that tasted like taking a big old gulp of the ocean, and even if you do want to take a big old gulp of the ocean, that is not what we are doing, here, so you will have to do that some other time.
(Also, less importantly: Quit letting some friggin' butter manufacturer decide how salty your food will be. That's a chump move.)
Let the vegetation cook in there with the pork and various fats until the onion is translucent; next, dump in, what, maybe half a cup or so of all-purpose flour and move everything around with a whisk until the flour and liquid fat are mixed completely together, and there aren't any big lumps of dry flour or pockets of liquid fat to be found, and you can smell the flour starting to cook, and it's buttery and porky and oniony and oh God, oh my God, ohmigod. You've just created a roux (or, more precisely, a roux with a bunch of chopped-up pork and vegetables in it); this will thicken your soup, and also make it taste like all the stuff that went into it.
You're mostly done making clam chowder! No, seriously. More than halfway. Now, bump up the heat under your pot just a tad, and, working maybe a half-cup-sized splash at a time, whisk the reserved clam liquid to the stuff in the pot. Don't rush things, here, thinking you see the finish line just around the bend; add a big splash of clam liquid to the pot, whisk until it's fully combined with the other stuff, then add another, and whisk it all the way in. And so on.
Here's what you're aiming for: a smooth, fully-combined substance with the consistency of your basic Thanksgiving gravy. Depending on exactly how much fat rendered out of your pork, and exactly how much flour you used, you may hit your mark before you use up all the clam liquid, or you may use up all the clam liquid and still have a substance that is thicker than gravy. If the latter happens, go ahead and whisk in warm water, again one half-cup-sized splash at a time, until you get there.
Now, you have a choice. As you can see, looking into your pot, what you have in there is not soup, yet. It's a great deal thicker than soup. You must dilute it before it can be called soup. There are a few ways to do this; choose according to how you prioritize health and pleasure, relative to each other. You can:
A) continue stirring in water and/or clam liquid until you've got what could be considered chowder-thickness liquid; or
B) stir in whole milk until you've got what could be considered chowder-thickness liquid; or
C) do the right goddamn thing, and stir in an entire quart of by-God heavy cream, because what the hell, you weren't gonna live forever anyway, you might as well make transcendent clam chowder once in your friggin' life.
Also, add the cubed potatoes and the drained clams to the pot. Bring the nascent chowder up to a low boil, then immediately lower the heat to steady it at a gentle simmer, and cook the soup, uncovered, until the potato-cubes are soft enough to stab with a fork.
Give your chowder a stir* every few minutes while it cooks, just to make sure the solid stuff isn't sticking to the bottom of your pot. You can give your chowder a taste, but even if it seems bland, don't salt it yet; the potatoes will withdraw some of the salt from the broth as they cook, and that can fuck up your salt calculations.
*Note: Once you've added the cream, put the whisk away and switch to a long-handled spoon or spatula or flyswatter or whatever for stirring. You don't want to whip a bunch of air into your chowder—don't worry, you probably couldn't produce stiff whipped chowder even if you tried, but the point here is that you don't want airy chowder. OK?
When the potatoes are done, the cooking part is over. Taste the chowder and add salt (if necessary) and a big pinch of freshly-ground black pepper. A couple splashes of Worcestershire, stirred into the pot, will do nicely, but aren't necessary.
There. That's it. New England clam chowder. That was pretty easy, for soup! Yes, it was, shut up.
Serve your chowder in big, warm bowls; make available a bottle of your favorite hot sauce (Cholula, weirdly, goes spectacularly with New England clam chowder, but familiar old Tabasco is great, too), a big loaf of crusty bread (or some saltines or oyster crackers, but, actually, a big loaf of crusty bread), and some very cold beer.
Eventually you'll sprinkle some hot sauce into your chowder and dredge bread or crackers through it, but first, scoop one simple, unadulterated spoonful into your mouth and taste it. It is: rich, and creamy, and salty, and savory, and the clam and pork and onion and celery and cream all layered and tangled and roiling, and hey, this is pretty good chowder, whether it is chowdah or not.
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Image by Sam Woolley.
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