Manila Clam and Aromatic Vegetable Chowder

My fresh take on clam chowder requires just over an hour from start to finish. This version is nothing like the chowder that you find at most restaurants, so thick with flour or other undesirables that your spoon stands up. This chowder gets its great body from the breakdown of the Russet potatoes as they simmer in the broth, as well as from the addition of several cups of aromatic vegetables.  As it should be!

Clams, like mussels, are a less expensive way to enjoy seafood. If you don’t have much experience cooking with them, it’s definitely worth getting comfortable.  Both are nutritional powerhouses, full of minerals and vitamin B-12, and unlike fish, it’s very easy to tell when they are done.  I chose Manila clams because they were just too beautiful to resist.  Any variety of clam will work for this recipe, and mussels would make a great substitute.

Manila Clam and Aromatic Vegetable Chowder

Manila Clam and Aromatic Vegetable Chowder:
*makes 4 large bowls of chowder*

3 slices thick-cut bacon
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 leeks, white and light green parts only, cleaned and small diced (an onion is a fine substitute)
1 medium carrot, small dice
2 stalks celery, small dice
1 small fennel bulb, small dice
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
several sprigs fresh thyme
2 # clams, soaked (see instructions below)
1 C. dry white wine
4 C. fish stock or bottled clam juice
3 C. vegetable broth
1 & ¼ # Russet potatoes, medium dice
several shakes of your favorite vinegar-based hot sauce (I like Tapatio)
2 tsp. sherry vinegar
1 C. heavy cream
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
large handful chopped fresh dill

First, chop all of your vegetables and dice your potatoes, placing the potatoes on a bowl of cold water to prevent discoloration.  I don’t peel my potatoes, but you certainly can if you’d prefer.

Manila Clam and Aromatic Vegetable Chowder

Cook the bacon pieces in a small saute pan until crispy.  Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside.  Carefully transfer the bacon fat into a large soup pot with a lid.  Add the olive oil and place over medium-low heat.  Add all of the vegetables to the pot (leek, carrot, celery, fennel, and garlic) along with the bay leaves and thyme, a few very generous pinches of salt, and plenty of freshly ground black pepper.  Cook the vegetables over medium-low heat, covered, for about 10 minutes until very soft.  Stir regularly, and if the vegetables begin to brown, reduce the heat further.

Once the vegetables are very soft and fragrant, pour in the wine.  While the wine reduces, prepare your clams for soaking.  Rinse the clams well, discarding any that will not close their shells after a gentle squeezing, and then place them into a bowl of very cold tap water.  Allow them to sit, undisturbed, for at least 20 minutes.

Return to your soup, adding the fish stock or clam juice and vegetable broth. Fish stock is sold in the freezer section (I just add it frozen – it melts quickly), and bottled clam juice is sold on the shelves of your grocery store.  Drain the potatoes and add them to as well. Add several shakes of hot sauce and a few more generous pinches of salt to season the potatoes.  Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce to medium and keep at a strong simmer until the potatoes are very tender, about 30 minutes.

About half way through the simmering of the potatoes, prepare your clams for their second soaking.  Grab a second, clean bowl. Lift the clams out of their bowl, leaving the sandy water at the bottom, and place them into the second bowl (resist the urge to pour the clams into the second bowl, as they sandy water will just be poured right back over the clams).  Again, cover the clams with very cold water and allow them to sit until they are ready to be added to the chowder.

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Once the potatoes are very tender, add the clams to the chowder (again, lifting them from the water to leave any sand behind).  Stir the chowder gently and cover the pot for 4-8 minutes, or until the clams have just opened (clams really vary as far as how long they take to open, so just keep checking on them every few minutes).  Once the clams are open, turn off the heat under the chowder.  Stir in the vinegar, the cream, the bacon, and the fresh dill.  Season to taste with more salt if necessary (don’t be shy, potato soups need lots of salt).

Ladle the soup between four bowls, discarding the bay leaves and thyme stems as you go.  Be sure to get any clams that have fallen out of their shells and are hanging out at the bottom of the pot.  Serve with soup spoons and small forks for pulling the clam meat from the shell, as well as a bowl for the table in which to place the discarded shells.

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