This past Sunday I went to my dad’s house on Lake Washington to celebrate his birthday. I will save the details of this tako yaki showdown for another time, but it prompted a memory of the clam chowder we made on Christmas – worth mentioning right now.
Rewind 3-ish months to when my dad, brother and I slathered bagels with cream cheese and layered each side with lox, savoring Christmas morning.
While my brother and I unpacked the too-skinny stockings my grandmother knit when we were born, my dad roared with laughter from his lawn chair (yes, he has a beautiful house but doesn’t have any furniture in his living room).
My brother pulled out a shirt that said “I love spam.” My dad threw his head back, bringing his fist to his mouth and teetering the feeble chair on its hind legs. (I remember this so clearly, and then I realized I even have a picture of this exactly moment!)
I ripped open into the tissue paper wrapping to find nail clippers with a magnifying glass attached from his trip to Japan. He laughed so hard his face was purple. I didn’t know presents could be so amusing, but he was getting a kick out of each one. Next came the surfboard beer opener, the crab cracking device and a re-gifted box of fleur de sel. Though, as random as this seems, I do love any form of fancy salt.
For Christmas dinner, we made a big pot of clam chowder. This nostalgically fatty meal, in one form or another, has always been major in my family. I grew up eating it: to-go from QFC before toddler ballet class, at seafood restaurants my dad took us to when we visited him in Seattle, and mostly, from a Progresso can.
My dad and I tried and failed to make it when I was 7.
Because of that experience, I hadn’t tried to make it again, until last Christmas. The three of us poured over ingredients in the kitchen – Duncan vigorously chopping for mise en place, my dad washing the clams and steaming them in white wine and herbs.
My dad took a break to hacky sack, which he claims is the way he is going to get in shape in 2016.
The three of us sat down to the dinner table with a loaf of homemade bread and bowls of the most perfect clam chowder. We’re all snobs, and there is nothing we would have changed about it. True to his form, Thomas Keller wrote a high maintenance recipe. I followed most of it and ditched a few things. Here is the simpler version.
Serves 6 (Makes 3 quarts)//Ad Hoc at Home
- 8 ounces bacon (preferably slab bacon)
- Canola oil
- 2 cups coarsely chopped leeks (white and light green parts only)
- 2 cups coarsely chopped onions
- 5 garlic cloves
- 2 thyme sprigs + 1 bay leaf + 1 smashed garlic clove
- 2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 4 pound littleneck clams or Manilla clams
- 1 1/4 cups kosher salt for the clam washing
- 4 1/2 tablespoons (2 1/4 ounces) unsalted butter + 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) unsalted butter
- 1/3 cup chopped shallots
- 2 thyme sprigs
- Kosher salt and finely ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 3 cups whole milk
- 3 cups heavy cream
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped chives for garnish
*Note: All of the clam washing seems tedious, but there is truly nothing worse in a clam chowder than grit.
Cut the bacon into small 1/2 inch thick pieces. Heat some canola oil in an 8-to-10 quart stockpot over medium heat. Add the bacon and reduce the heat to low, letting the fat render for 20-25 minutes. The bacon should color but not become crispy. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon from the pan.
Add the leeks, onions and garlic to the pan and stir. Sprinkle with salt and cover with a lid, cooking slowly, until the vegetables are tender.
Put the potatoes in a large saucepan with 1 smashed garlic clove, 2 teaspoons of salt, 1 bay leaf and 2 sprigs of thyme. Cover with cold water and bring to a simmer, cooking until just tender.
Drain in a colander and run cold water over them to stop the cooking process. Discard the garlic and herbs.
Clean the clams with a scrubby brush, removing any sand. Place in a large bowl with 8 cups of water and the salt, stirring to dissolve. Make sure there is enough water to cover the clams, and let them soak for about 5 minutes, drawing out any leftover sand from them. Take the clams out of the water and rise one more time in a colander.
When the vegetables are tender, increase the heat to medium and add the 4 1/2 tablespoons butter. Once melted, add the flour to coat the vegetables and continue to cook for 2-3 minutes. Whisk in the milk and cream, season to taste with salt and pepper and bring to a low simmer.
Melt the 2 tablespoons of butter in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and thyme sprigs, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring for about 1 minute until tender. Add the wine, bring to a boil and cook for about 2 minutes to evaporate some of the alcohol. Add the clams, cover the pan, and cook for about 4 minutes, removing the clams as they open. Strain all of the clam liquid through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl.
Shell the clams and set aside.
Gently stir the clam liquid to taste into the soup pot (avoiding adding any visible sand if possible). Season the chowder with salt and pepper to taste. Add the potatoes and about two thirds of the clams.
Garnish the soup with remaining clams, bacon and chopped chives.