Seasonal Pantry: Easy, delicious, seafood chowders for late winter

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If you found yourself in bad traffic in Bodega Bay a couple weekends ago, chances are you hit the annual Bodega Bay Chowder Day festival, a popular event that draws nearly 1,000 visitors from throughout the Bay Area.

Once again, Spud Point Crab Co. took the top People’s Choice award and came in third in the Critic’s Choice competition. Fisherman’s Cove got the top nod from the critics and came in second place with the public.

We typically enjoy clam chowder and similar soups at cafés and restaurants and not our own kitchens, unless we’re opening a can of Campbell’s. But chowders are among the easiest soups to make at home. They don’t have a long list of ingredients and don’t require lengthy cooking. You need no special skills, just good ingredients. They are elegant enough for a special meal — Valentine’s Day, perhaps — but simple enough to prepare on a weeknight.

In spring and summer, I like to make salmon, corn and smoked salmon chowders. In the fall, my Gravenstein apple chowder is a big hit. But in the winter months, even as threads of spring warmth sneak into our days, clam chowder and oyster chowder are the way to go.


Some recipes call for Old Bay seasoning and a lot of fresh dill, but I find both eclipse the briny deliciousness of the clams themselves. Thyme and parsley are more subtle and work well as supporting players, as does the pancetta, which can be eliminated if you don’t have it on hand or don’t eat it.

New England Style Clam Chowder

Makes about 6 to 10 servings

2 cups dry white wine

2 thyme sprigs (if you have them)

1 bay leaf

10 pounds small Manila or Pacific Littleneck clams, sorted, scrubbed and rinsed (see Note below)

4 tablespoons butter

1 yellow onion, cut into small dice

4 ounces pancetta, diced

4 large or 8 medium potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, peeled and cut into small dice

— Kosher salt

4 cups half-and-half

2 cups heavy cream

— White pepper in a mill

— Pinch of red pepper flakes, optional

4 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

— Hot sourdough bread

Pour the wine into a large pot and add 3 cups of water along with the thyme sprigs and bay leaf. Bring to a boil over high heat, add the clams, reduce the heat so that the liquid simmers gently and cook, covered, until the clams open, from 3 to 8 minutes.

Remove from heat and let cool slightly.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the clams to a bowl. Return the pan to medium heat and reduce the cooking liquid by about half so you have just 2½ to 3 cups.

While the liquid reduces, remove the clams from their shells, discard the shells and set the clams aside. Carefully pry open any closed clams and remove the meat; it’s rare an unopened clam will be bad at this point. Strain the cooking liquid into a bowl, rinse the pot and set it over medium heat. Add the butter and when it is melted, add the onion and sauté until soft and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Add the pancetta and sauté 2 to 3 minutes, until it loses its raw look. Add the potatoes and sauté, stirring gently all the while, for about 3 minutes. Season lightly with salt.

Add the strained cooking liquid and simmer gently for 10 to 15 minutes or until the potatoes are tender.

Meanwhile, chop the clams if they are bigger than, say, a nickel. Leave small clams whole.

Stir in the half-and-half and cream and heat through; do not boil. Stir in the clams, season generously with white pepper and add the red pepper flakes, if using, and the parsley. Taste and correct for salt, if needed.

Ladle into soup bowls and enjoy right away, with hot bread alongside.

Note: In a pinch, use bottled clams, 2 to 3 pounds total weight for 10 people.


The secret to a great oyster stew is understanding that less really is more. You want oysters center stage, buoyed by a few other ingredients and not cooked too long. Once the oysters are prepped, it takes just a few minutes to make a stew.

Oyster Stew

Serve 3 to 4

3 to 4 dozen small fresh Pacific oysters

¼ cup butter

3 shallots, minced

— Kosher salt

4 bacon strips, diced

½ cup white wine

2 ½ cups heavy cream

2 tablespoons minced Italian parsley

— Black pepper in a mill

Shuck the oysters (see Note below), reserving their liquor. Put the oysters in a bowl, cover them and refrigerate. Pour the oyster liquor through a fine strainer into a small bowl, cover it and refrigerate it.

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan set over medium heat, add the shallots and sauté until they are soft and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Season lightly with salt. Add the bacon and sauté for 7 to 8 minutes, until it is cooked through but not quite crisp.

Add the wine and simmer until it is almost completely reduced, with only about a teaspoon or so remaining in the pan. Add the oyster liquor and when it begins to boil, reduce the heat to medium-low. Add the cream and heat it through. Stir in the oysters and cook gently until their edges just begin to curl, about 2 minutes. Stir in the parsley, season generously with black pepper and ladle into warm soup bowls.

Enjoy right away.

Note: Some markets will shuck oysters for you. If they do, be sure to ask that they save the liquor for you. Alternately, if you don’t have a good shucking arm, you can set oysters in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and put them in a 450-degree oven for 2 to 3 minutes; remove from the oven to use an oyster knife to open the shell. Reserve all the liquid, including that which collects on the baking sheet. A pressure cooker works well, too. Put the oysters in the cooker, add ¼ inch of water and set over medium heat. Cook at level one pressure for 1½ minutes. Release the steam quickly, open the lid, let cool until you can handle the oysters, then remove them from their shells and strain and reserve the liquor. When you cook the oysters to open the shell, they will need only to be heated through to finish the soup; do not overcook them.


If you want to gild the lily, buy a tin of smoked oysters, drain off the oil and add the oysters to the chowder with the trout. It’s a spectacular combination.

Smoked Trout Chowder

Serves 3 to 4

8 ounces skin-on smoked trout or other smoked fish of choice

1 bay leaf

2 or 3 thyme sprigs

3 cups homemade fish fumet or chicken broth or stock

2 tablespoons butter

1 shallot, minced

— Kosher salt

8 ounces marble-sized potatoes, rinsed and scrubbed

1 cup heavy cream

½ cup crème fraiche

— Black pepper in a mill

— Smoked salt, optional

1 tablespoon fresh snipped chives

Pull off the skin of the trout and set meat aside.

Put the skin into a medium saucepan, add the bay leaf, thyme sprigs and fish fumet or chicken broth/stock and set over a medium flame. When the liquid boils, reduce the heat and simmer very gently for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat, strain the stock into a bowl and discard the skin and herbs.

Set the saucepan over medium-low heat, add the butter and when it’s melted, add the shallot and sauté gently until it’s soft and fragrant, about 7 to 8 minutes. Season lightly with salt.

Add the strained stock or broth and the potatoes, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer gently until the potatoes are completely tender when pierced with a fork. It will take at least 10 minutes and as long as 20 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes.

Add the cream and crème fraiche and whisk well. Break the trout into chunks and add it to the chowder, along with several generous turns of black pepper and a sprinkling of smoked salt, if using.

Ladle into soup bowls or plates, scatter chives on top and enjoy right away.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books, including “San Francisco Seafood.” Email her at

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