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