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Cooking the Classics: Boston Clam Chowder

Cooking the Classics: Boston Clam Chowder

A look at one of the most famous versions of clam chowder: a thick soup packed with cream, vegetables and clams originally made in New England.

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Let there be no mistake: I’m a huge, ravenous, diehard Red Sox fan. Therefore, I’m inclined to favor anything related to Boston. That is how I rationalize entitling this article Cooking the Classics: Boston Clam Chowder, as opposed to New York or even New England, or simply Clam Chowder. All varieties can be delicious. But for me, it must be Boston.

What is a chowder, you might well ask, presuming you are not from New England? A chowder is a thick soup, with the “proper” ones (I insert this to goad New Yorkers, as you will see shortly) packed with cream, vegetables, and clams.

The New England clam chowder is thickened with diced potato, celery and onions, and the traditional accompaniment, to make a humble bowl of hot soup into a meal, is oyster crackers or saltine crackers, crumbled into the soup to give it heft. These soups are meant as meals, for chowders are, by definition, prepared with a roux or crushed crackers or biscuits. They are, also by definition, not light.

New England clam chowder dates back to at least the 18th century, when French and British settlers arrived in New England. The coast offers plentiful clams, which locals call quahogs: abundant, easy to use, and cheap, so this was a dish that anyone could enjoy.

Early 19th century clam chowder recipes call for a base made like a roux but with condensed milk. Until 2008, there was a specific brand of oyster cracker served on the side, to crumble into your New England chowder: Crown Pilot, though the product was discontinued, perhaps due to insufficient chowder consumption.

Boston Clam Chowder recipe

The Boston clam chowder recipe I knew growing up was served at Legal Seafood in Boston. For me this is the zenith, to which all other clam chowders must be compared. So I decided to try to make Legal Seafood’s version. First I had to get clams. In Massachusetts, clams are essentially synonymous with the term quahog.

Turns out there are many clam variations: Legal Seafood uses the smallest clam, Little Neck (7-10 clams per pound), while officially Quahogs are the largest, with just 2-3 clams per pound.

Put shellfish in a saucepot, boil or steam them until they open, discard those that don’t open. Cooked and without the shells, they’re ready for action.

This recipe asks you to remove them and save the broth, while you sauté salt pork, onions and then add some flour to the fat, making a sort of a roux, before reintroducing the clam broth and the clams, with cream coming at the end.

Some clam chowder variations

There are variations to the classic boston clam chowder recipe. In Delaware, fried cubes of salted pork are added, advancing the cause for the union of fish and pork, which results in surprising deliciousness.

In the Outer Banks of North Carolina, you can find Hatteras clam chowder, which is a clear broth thickened with flour, rather than milk or cream, and with bacon (and honestly, doesn’t bacon make everything better?).

New Jersey clam chowder likewise has bacon, but also Old Bay seasoning, asparagus and sliced tomato.

In Rhode Island, the preferred chowder has a clear broth, at which we Boston fans scoff.

Clam Chowder, from San Francisco to Minorca

In San Francisco, you can find New England style clam chowder served in sourdough bread bowls (edible dishes mean less to clean afterwards, always good, in my book). In the Pacific Northwest, you might find New England style chowder with smoked salmon added instead of pork or bacon.

The most exotic alternative might be Minorcan clam chowder, which is found in only two places: the island of Minorca, near Spain and the area around St. Augustine, Florida, where settlers from Minorca arrived in the 18th century.

The key ingredient in this version is the datil pepper, with a spiciness at the level of habanero, giving it quite a kick (chili, like bacon and Old Bay, improves just about anything). But it has a tomato broth base, which draws it significantly away from the purist’s definition of chowder, and toward a more generic clam soup.

And now we come to, eh-hem, New York clam chowder, which is tasty, sure, but isn’t really a chowder. It contains no milk or cream, for one thing. It’s reddened with tomato. It does contain clams, and is a soup, but that’s about it’s only claim to being a proper chowder.

In fact, in 1939, the grand old state of Maine officially banned the use of tomato in anything you wish to call “chowder,” making the sale of New York or Manhattan clam “chowder” illegal. Clearly, even back then, Maine was full of Red Sox fans. Amen.

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