Yes, I know it's not spelled right but I'm from Cape Cod, MA and we don't pronounce “r's”. It seems that all my life I've been searching for the perfect clam chowda. I've eaten chowda all over the U. S. and Europe. One thing I've discovered is that it's useless to search for decent clam chowda in Europe with one exception: The Kordic restaurant in the basement of a church in Zagreb in what used to be Yugoslavia.
I know, right? I'm looking at the menu and right there, staring back at me under soups, was New England Clam Chowder. Well, shiver me timbers, mate, this I gotta try. It was phenomenal. I had to find out about the chef who made this. Turns out, when he was younger and going to school in Boston, he worked at the Union Oyster House and fell in love with clam chowda! Creamy, hand cut potatoes, thick but not like wallpaper paste, nice chunks of clams and an earthiness to it that reminded me of low tide. The only thing missing was a pack of Premium Oyster Crackers. Sorry, but Premium Oyster Crackers are required for a top tier level chowda. No, the others just won't do.
I don't want to think about how many gallons of clam chowda I've eaten or made. Even today, every time I go to a restaurant that serves chowda, I have to try it even if I've eaten there many times before and didn't like it. I always have hope that they've seen the error of their ways and fixed their chowda. I know, I've never seen it happen either. If it's bad once, it's always going to be bad.
As you can imagine, I've developed very strong opinions on what makes a good clam chowda and how they fail. I realize it's completely subjective but it's my blog so what I say goes, even if I'm wrong. It's sort of like being the captain of a ship. Even if the captain's wrong, the captain is right.
Here are my bullet points for what makes a great clam chowda:
You have to start with fat. That usually comes from rendering fat back, salt pork or bacon, then removing the bits and using the fat to sauté the onions, etc. I love fat back but not in clam chowda. It's just too greasy and I can tell. It can't be bacon both because it's too lean and has a distinctive flavor particularly if it's smoked or flavored. That leaves us with salt pork, the perfect fat for chowda although some of the better ones add just a little bacon in for flavor. Some of the smoky notes that come through in really good chowda are from bacon.
Onions. Sweet Vidalia are the only ones to use. If you use any other onions, you're just wrong.
Potatoes. Big debate here but I'm going to end the discussion right now. Red Bliss or Yukon Gold. There, I've given you one of the secrets. Not only are they both tasty, but also they hold up to all the simmering without easily breaking down so you're left with real firm chunks and who doesn't like a real firm chunk? Never, ever, ever use Russets unless you're trying to thicken the chowda with potatoes. They simply fall apart and you can't have that in good clam chowda.
Clams. Oh lord, people, it's CLAM chowda! There better be plenty of clams in there or you get a failing grade. You can debate what type of clams and frozen or fresh but don't skimp on the clams. The size of the clams should be the same size as the potato chunks. I don't care if they're large or small but uniformity is the key. Personally, I prefer steamed clams but a lot of people use quahogs (which we actually call Chowdas here on Cape Cod) and they're perfectly acceptable.
The chowda itself. Here's where the problem usually lies. I like a thick chowda but if it reminds me of wallpaper paste, you've gone too far. Many places use flour to thicken their chowda, which is fine, unless you can taste the flour. Please make a perfect slurry with the flour before adding it or, even better, make a roux and let it brown up a little for flavor and to take out that floury taste before adding. This one thing alone will elevate your chowder to previously unknown gastronomic levels. I've tasted chowdas that were thickened by crushing the potatoes or even using crushed saltine crackers (yes, they better be Premium) but I don't personally think they're as successful as simply properly adding flour.
Now, we'll talk about what separates a good chowda from a great one and that's what you add in after everything is done. I've had chowdas that used Worchestershire sauce (great choice), cooking sherry (not so good), truffle oil (interesting with a distinctive flavor), hot sauce (these people should never be allowed to make chowda again), bourbon (not a good idea but I'll take the bourbon on the side, please), wine (wrong again), Old Bay Seasoning (nice idea but too overpowering) and lord even knows what other people have tried.
Look folks, here it is, plain and simple. You don't need a lot of exotic ingredients to make a fabulous clam chowda. What you do need is execution. Like most things in life, failure results from the inability to execute properly. Use the right fat, real chunks of potato and clam, don't let it taste like flour and thicken properly and you'll have a great chowda. The more you try to screw it up, the more screwed up it will be.
OK, I've told you my secrets to great clam chowda, now it's up to you. All my life I've been searching for the perfect one and still haven't found it. If you have a secret family recipe, send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll try it. If it does turn out to be the perfect one, I'll tell the whole world, you'll be famous and I shall worship you as the god you are.