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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Mahogany Neck Clam Chowder

This weekend I found some local, wild-caught Mahogany Neck clams at the fish market, too beautiful and fresh to resist. (For only five and a half dollars, I took home a bag of 50.) Mahogany Neck clams are medium-sized, meaty yet tender when properly cooked, sweet and salty, and best of all, approved by Seafood Watch.

I like using fresh clams for this recipe, not only because they have better flavor and texture than canned clams, but because when you cook them yourself you get the clam broth you need for base of this soup. You can use whatever clams are fresh, local and sustainably harvested, but cook enough to yield about 2 cups of meat. Visit the Seafood Watch website to find the best choices in your area.

I usually make Manhattan clam chowder, the tomato-based version, but this weekend I had a special request for a creamy clam chowder.  If you prefer your chowder Manhattan-style, substitute 28 ounces of crushed tomatoes for the heavy cream.

Creamy chowders usually call for flour or cornstarch as thickening agents, but instead, I puréed some of the soup to thicken it naturally. Recipes also often call for bottled clam juice, but if you use fresh clams, they create their own broth, which tastes better than anything you’ll find in a bottle. Use real cream and skip the low-fat or fat-free versions. Real foods are always better than processed foods.

4 dozen Mahogany Neck clams, or other fresh clams yielding approximately 2 cups roughly chopped cooked meat
2 tbsp organic butter
¼ cup minced pancetta or chopped pasture-raised bacon
1 large onion, chopped, about 1 ½ cups
4 stalks celery, chopped, about 1 cup
3 cloves garlic, minced or grated
3 medium skin-on Yukon Gold potatoes, chopped
Freshly ground peppercorn to taste
2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves or 1 tbsp dried thyme leaves
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley plus leaves for garnish
1 to 1½ cups organic heavy cream

Fill the bottom of a large stock pot with 2 inches of water and warm over high heat until boiling. Scrub the clams clean, add them to the pot, and cover. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the clams have opened, about 15 minutes. Transfer them to a large bowl, discarding any clams that did not open. Strain the clam broth through a fine mesh strainer lined with cheese cloth, to remove any grit or sand, and set aside.

If there is any sand or grit still at the bottom of the pot, rinse it clean. Replace the clean pot on the stove top over medium heat and add the butter, pancetta or bacon, onion and celery. Sauté until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, potatoes, peppercorn, and dried thyme if you are using it. The clams will be salty, so do not add any salt now. Stir and continue to cook for 1 or 2 more minutes, stirring frequently, until the garlic is aromatic and the potatoes are coated with the other flavors. Do not burn the garlic.

Return the clam broth to the soup pot and stir to scrape up any brown bits on the bottom. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Add water if the liquid level is low but keep in mind that you will be adding more liquid (cream) at the end.

Meanwhile, remove the clams from the shells and discard the shells. Use a clean kitchen scissors to cut the clams into 3 or 4 meaty pieces or roughly chop them and set them aside. Reserve some whole clams for garnish if you wish. Add any juices that have collected at the bottom of the bowl back to the pot.

Once the potatoes are tender, turn off the heat. Transfer 2 cups of the cooked vegetables and some of the broth to a blender, cool slightly and purée until smooth. Return the purée to the pot, add the heavy cream to taste, and observe the consistency. Repeat the purée process if you want a thicker chowder. Once you're happy with it, add the chopped clams and fresh herbs.

If you're making the chowder in advance, allow it to sit for up to 2 hours or cool to room temperature and store it in the fridge until ready to eat.

To serve, bring the soup just to a simmer over low heat and cook until everything is heated through. Do not overcook the clams. Taste for seasoning and add sea salt if necessary. (I usually don't find it necessary.) Garnish with fresh parsley leaves and any reserved whole clams, then serve it right away.

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