Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Illegal Clam Chowder

There are many ways to make clam chowder - no recipe needed, if you’ve prepared it even once before. I hope your clam chowder is never actually illegal, though thats what I call this recipe. Why?  Two reasons: (1) There was the time that my partners in crime and I happily dug clam after clam, not realizing that we were trespassing on private property (i.e., a clam farm). And (2) there was the time we stumbled onto clams, forgetting that we needed a license to dig them. 

The clam farm incident is almost too embarrassing to discuss. In our defense, there were no visible signs, fences, or warnings. To this day, I still wonder if the man who ordered my then-young children and I from a public beach wasn’t protecting his own clam fiefdom. 

As for the beach where two friends and I dug without a license … There’s really no excuse. With neither rakes nor shovels, we weren’t looking for clams, so when we found them, we clawed at them as they burrowed into a tidal pool to escape. 

One clam led to another, and by the time we’d considered that we should have a license, the pockets of our shorts were bulging. As soon as we thought of the word “license,” one friend and I stepped back, pretending we had nothing to do with the third friend, still slashing her fingers on the barnacles as she tried to grab the slippery clams. Emotion overcame me as I screamed: “Dig, Bonnie, dig!” To this day, I feel ashamed.

So that’s how Illegal Clam Chowder got its name. Although it was wrong, my friends and I savored every clam and every drop of nectar when I made the chowder. While there are endless ways to make clam chowder, the recipe below is one of my favorites. 

While the amount of clams and the quantity and type of ingredients is variable (if you like celery, add celery), what makes this recipe so special is the bacon, beer, and canned tomato soup. Do not tinker with those ingredients, because the result is superb. I might have given this recipe a conventional title; as penance for my crimes, my version remains “Illegal.”

I suspect the majority of you have no easy, inexpensive access to fresh clams (“Hello-oo, Kansas! Hello-oo, Coober Pedy!”), so the recipe below uses canned clams. I’m a huge fan of clamming and would sleep with my clam rake if I could, so the Note at the bottom of the recipe will tell you how to prepare fresh clams. 

Illegal Clam Chowder:

2 medium Russet potatoes, scrubbed, peeled, and diced into ½-in. pieces
1 large carrot, scrubbed, peeled, and diced or sliced into ½-in. pieces
1-12 fl. oz. (341 mL) can kernel corn, undrained
1 large onion, coarsely diced 
4 slices raw bacon, in 1-in. pieces
1-14 fl. oz. (398 mL) can clam nectar
3-5 oz. (142 g) cans baby clams, with nectar and clams used separately
1-10-fl. oz. (284 mL) can condensed cream of tomato soup
1-12 fl. oz. (355 mL) beer or pale ale 
Salt and pepper, as desired

Place potatoes, carrot, corn with juice, onion, bacon, clam nectar and drained nectar from clams into large pot. Bring just to the boil and immediately reduce heat to low.
Cover and simmer 30 min., stirring now and then. Combine tomato soup with beer or ale, whisking to remove lumps. Add clams, sitrring into chowder. Season to taste, serving at once. Serves 6-to-8.

Note: If you use frozen or canned clams, add one 12- or 14-oz. (398 mL) can clam nectar.

One More Note: I prefer to use small butter clams in this recipe, because they’re readily available in the Time Zone and at the Latitude Where I Live. Larger clams may need to be ground or chopped finely to ensure their tenderness. Note that licenses are now available online, leaving you no excuse! Stick to the daily allowed limit, too. Sustainable clamming depends on ethical harvests. For a very good guide to clamming, see:

Illegal Clam Chowder

Freshly caught clams are full of sand. If you’re fortunate enough to live near the ocean and have a strong net bag or mesh diving bag, hang the clam-filled bag from the side of a dock or boat, allowing the clams to spit their sand as the current flows through the bag over several hours

Alternately, place the clams in a large bowl of sea water or cool, salted fresh water. Change the water every couple of hours as the clams spit their sand. Commercially caught crabs are sand-free when you buy them - one reason why so they’re pricey.

Clams toughen up with cooking, so steam them as quickly as possible, usually for two or three minutes. I use the two-pot system - the pot on the bottom containing a small amount of boiling water, and the pot on the top (with its little steamer holes) allowing the nectar to drip through. 

I cook fewer than 50 clams for even heat dispersement, steaming them for only a couple of minutes so theyll remain tender. Transfer the opened clams to a bowl and start the process over without adding any more water as the bottom of your pot will now contain all that delicious nectar. Discard any clams that fail to open under steaming; they were probably dead when they were caught, so you wont want to eat them, now.

Save the gorgeous broth for making chowder or for serving hot clams naked (the clams - not you, Dollinks), perhaps with a little white wine added to the hot broth in which you serve them. Shell and dip the hot clams into melted butter, offer slices of baguette on the side, and you will know nirvana. Have a bowl for the empty shells, a finger bowl with hot water and lemon, a small face cloth for discreet lip-dabbing, and all will be right with the world.

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