Dorine Houston (Institute for Global Communication)
Choose the potatoes carefully. I have always preferred red-skinned potatoes because they look so pretty. If these are not available in your country, choose a potato that has a waxy rather than floury texture; that is, the kind that does not fall apart easily when boiled. You want them to keep their cube form after cooking.
This soup is often called New England clam chowder. However, it always me think of visits with my grandparents, and later with friends, to various beach towns up and down the coast of New Jersey, from Sea Girt to Cape May. My grandmother's clam chowder was always puddled with melted butter after having been cooked in plenty of bacon. In my house, we eat it year round. It is especially popular with visiting international students.
6 oz (200 g) thick-sliced bacon (or butter if you do not eat pork)
1 smallish common yellow onion, minced
2 outside stalks of celery, with the leaves attached, minced
6 medium potatoes, cubed
Hefty pinch dried thyme or several stems fresh
1 tsp white pepper, preferably freshly ground
1 quart (1 litre) cream
1 cup (250 dl) water
4 bay leaves, bruised
4 whole black peppercorns, bruised
Several stems of fresh flat-leaf parsley
24-30 large stewing clams
Additional flat-leaf parsley or sweet Hungarian paprika for garnish
Butter, whipping cream, and/or scallions
1. Get the clams ready. Put them in a large bowl of cold water in your refrigerator at least an hour, preferably 2-3 hours before you plan to cook them. Sprinkle the water with a handful of cornmeal. Every half hour or so, change the water and add a new handful of corn meal. You will notice that the clams are eating the cornmeal and disgorging the sand from their bodies, giving them a nicer texture after they are cooked.
2. Chop the bacon into pieces about 1/4 - 1/2 inch (0.5-1 cm) long and put in a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot. Cook until the bacon is tender and has released enough fat to cook the potatoes in. If you are using butter, melt it.
3. Scrub the potatoes thoroughly and cut out the eyes, but do not peel them. Part of the charm of the soup is the pretty appearance of potato skin, especially if it is red, in the soup. Cut them into cubes about the size of the end of your thumb.
4. Peel and mince onion.
5. Scrub and mince celery, including the leaves. Outside stalks and leaves have a stronger flavor than inside, leafless ones, and give better flavor to cooked dishes.
6. Put potatoes in bacon (or butter) and cook, stirring frequently to prevent them from sticking (potatoes stick very easily) until the outsides begins to get tender. Add celery and cook, stirring, about 2 minutes. Add onion; cook, stirring, until the onion becomes clear but does not quite begin to brown. Set aside.
7. Put water in another large pot and add bay leaves, peppercorns, and parsley. Bring to a boil. Thoroughly rinse clams and drop into boiling water. Cover and reduce temperature to medium. Check them in 2 minutes. With a slotted spoon, start removing clams as they open up their shells and put them in a bowl. After a couple of minutes, any that have not opened up were already dead when they went into the pot and must be discarded (they will make you sick). Take clams out of their shells and chop them; put the chopped clams into a bowl, and make sure to save their juices and the water they were cooked in. (This water has a lot of clam flavor.)
8. Strain the clam cooking water into the potato mixture. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer.
9. Add the white pepper (black pepper will make ugly black specks in the soup; this does not much affect the final taste). If you are using dried thyme, rub it between your palms as you drop it into the pot, to release the essential oils. If you are using fresh thyme, strip the leaflets off the stems, heap them onto a board, and chop at the heap several times to release essential oils. Add to pot.
10. Cook the soup, covered, for 10 minutes, stirring from time to time to prevent sticking. When the potatoes are tender, add the cream and heat to just under a boil. Add the clams and stir thoroughly.
11. Serve in a soup tureen or in individual bowls. Garnish the top of the chowder with any number of lovely things: a dollop of cream whipped with a bit of salt (perhaps with some minced scallion mixed in), a thick pat of unsalted butter, a sprinkling of sweet Hungarian paprika, some fresh minced flat-leaf parsley or scallion, or any combination thereof that appeals to you.
12. Eat this hot with freshly baked bread and plenty of unsalted butter, and some mixed green salad, and think of salty breezes wafting across your face on a lovely summer day at the New Jersey shore.