Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Manhattan Clam Chowder

I grew up a Manhattan clam chowder kid. Clam chowder was definitely a huge family favorite, and we ate a lot of the New England variety, too, but I remember being especially passionate about Manhattan-style clam chowder. We frequently made daytrips to Santa Cruz back then, and one version of this daytrip involved a stroll out over the Pacific on the main pier, where there was an informal seafood restaurant that served an awfully tasty, awfully peppery, Manhattan clam chowder. The pepper content didn't stop the die-hards from adding Tabasco sauce to it, though. On chilly days when the pier was shrouded in fog and/or a stiff breeze was whipping across the waters their Manhattan clam chowder was a godsend.

As much as I loved New England clam chowder, somehow it always seemed more familiar. I think it had to do with the affinities between the cuisine of New England and the cuisine of Quebec, New Brunswick, and the Maritimes, the first two of which I was well acquainted with. Manhattan clam chowder was more exotic. It was red, and spicy, and it came from New York, or so I thought. (I hadn’t been to New York yet, and the Yankees were my favorite team at the time, so you can just imagine the attraction.) Apparently, the origins of Manhattan clam chowder have very little to do with New York and a lot to do with the New England-based Portuguese community, but at the time I was none the wiser.

Sunday, Michelle made another successful sourdough loaf—this time she proofed it for 24 hours and she used a water bath to give the crust a nice finish—and we were busy trying to decide what we might make for dinner to accompany this brand-new loaf, when Mom suggested a Manhattan clam chowder. Now, the best thing to have with a fresh, hot sourdough loaf straight out of the oven is a cioppino, in my opinion, but cioppino was a bit complicated for us on that particular day (we had canning to do, after all), and Manhattan clam chowder comes in a close second, so that’s what we made. Plus, it was really cold out and there was a wind howling, so it just made sense.

We found a recipe in Gourmet magazine from March of this year, made some adjustments to it, and went out to Nouveau Falero—easily the best local fish store—to get the main ingredients. Later, that evening, I did the prep work on the chowder, and 45 minutes later we were having the best Manhattan clam chowder I’ve had in years—maybe since Santa Cruz.

One of the things that made clam chowder so appealing way back when was its affordability. I still remember when they used to give clams away. Clams, mussels, and oysters used to be a poor man’s food, a food used as a cost-effective substitute for meat [more on this in a later entry—ed]. Times have changed, though, and clams in the shell cost a pretty penny. If you can afford it, though—or if you can rationalize splurging the way we did—it’s definitely worth getting clams in the shell. The whole experience of making the chowder—the way it looks, the way it smells—is more satisfying, and the taste is far superior to one made with pre-shelled clam meat.

6 slices of bacon, cut into squares
1 medium onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
3 stalks of celery, diced
3 medium red potatoes, chopped into 1/2” cubes
3 8-oz bottles of clam juice
1 large (28 oz) can of diced tomatoes, including the juice
3 dozen smallneck clams, scrubbed well
1/8-1/4 tsp espelette pepper or cayenne pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
salt and (plenty) of black pepper, to taste

Cook the bacon in a large pot over moderate heat, stirring, until golden. Reduce heat to moderately low, then add onion, bell pepper, and celery and cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in potato, bottled clam juice, and tomatoes (with juice) and simmer, covered, 10 minutes. Stir in clams and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until clams open wide, 8-10 minutes. Discard any clams that haven’t opened after 10 minutes. Remove pot from heat.

Remove clamshells with tongs, detach the clam meat and discard the shells, returning the clam meat to the chowder. Stir in the espelette/cayenne pepper, the parsley, and add salt and black pepper to taste. Simmer for another 5 minutes to allow flavors to mingle.

Serve with a crusty loaf of bread, preferably sourdough.



Anonymous said...

did the kids on the block call you manny-boy or clammy-boy for fun?

Anonymous said...

as a person who speaks english as a second language i must admit that i never had the guts to try clam chowder. i could never understand what it stood for and it kind of sounded like an STD. But now i know AND i have a recipie.

michelle said...
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