A little over a year ago, Shawn, the kids and several of our friends were on the Cape (Cape Cod, that is) for a wedding. One evening, we got takeout from a little place in Orleans, Massachusetts called Sir Crickets. We all ordered something different — fried clams, fried oysters (mmm!), clam chowder, fish and chips … there was just an array. We all shared a bit, which I love to do. It allows you to try so much more without going crazy. Total bliss.
The fried oysters — the first ones I’ve ever had — were amazing: tender, meaty and beautifully cooked. But as delicious as the fried oysters were, the standout dish was the New England clam chowder, which was ridiculously creamy, well-seasoned, a little smoky and loaded with clams and potatoes. It had taken some convincing to get me to try it, but when I did it totally reawakened a long dormant love of chowders in me.
Unfortunately, my friends and I skipped our annual fall trip to the Cape this past year, so I didn’t get to indulge in my favorites again. Maybe that’s why I have become a little obsessed with New England-style cooking. Why should it take a trip to the Cape for me to enjoy things like New England Clam Chowder?
This recipe for New England Clam Chowder comes from my family cookbook, which was created about 30 years ago with personal recipes from my grandmother, her sister and cousins. It also has journal entries from my great-great grandmother. The first time I saw the cookbook, I read through from cover to cover soaking in every word. It was almost like eavesdropping, but better. There’s such a special connection to my family’s past in that book.
New England Clam Chowder is a big thing here in the Northeast. Sold everywhere from grocery stores to fine restaurants, making a good chowder is no small feat. It should be creamy, but taste of the sea, and clams and have a meatiness to it. The potatoes give it a little more bulk. It should never be overwhelmed by the cream though. This recipe, which comes from a cousin (I think) named Peggy, is all of these things. It also has a very, very faint sweetness from the caramelized onions. But since it uses milk instead of heavy cream, it’s a little lighter. That means that the clam flavor shines through beautifully.
Make sure you use really good clams. I bought frozen ones from a local market that has a dedicated fish section. They came from Rhode Island. My clam juice was from Maine — both perfect for a true New England chowder.
It’s important to note that while this New England Clam Chowder is lighter than more traditional recipes, it’s still not exactly light. The base starts with a lot of diced salt pork, after all. But you can enjoy this one with a little less guilt — so that’s something, right?
On a side note, I have discovered that New England cooking really loves salt pork and cream. Just sayin’. Considering I plan to do more New England-style cooking, I wonder what that might mean for my waist? Eh, better not to worry …
Did the family like it? Yes! The kids, Shawn and I all really enjoyed this recipe. Shawn’s hoping for a slightly creamier version to hit our table soon, but I was really happy with this less creamy version. Try serving it with Fluffy Baking Powder Biscuits.
So, are you a chowder fan? What’s your favorite variety?
Lighter New England Clam Chowder, A Family Recipe
- 1/4 lb salt pork diced
- 1 red onion diced
- 1 yellow onion diced
- 6 large potatoes diced
- 1 quart chopped clams I use frozen fresh ones
- 1 pint clam juice
- 1 quart low-fat milk
- salt and pepper to taste
- Heat a large pot on the stove (I used my cast iron Dutch oven) over medium heat. Add the salt pork and cook for about 10 minutes until the fat renders and the bits are golden. Remove the salt pork bits from the pot and reserve for later.
- Add the onions to the pot and stir well. Cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent and lightly browned. Add the potatoes and stir well to combine.
- Add the clams and clam juice. (You can just add the clams frozen, but it will add more time to the cooking time.) Stir well. Cook for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are fork tender.
- While the clams are cooking, separate the fatty bits from the meaty bits of salt pork. Discard any fatty ones -- they are tough and inedible. Stir the meaty salt pork bits back into the chowder.
- Once the potatoes are tender, stir in the milk. Enjoy immediately. This soup reheats well.
Sarah Walker Caron is a cookbook author, freelance writer and founder of Sarah’s Cucina Bella. Her latest cookbook is The Super Easy 5-Ingredient Cookbook, published by Rockridge Press, which focuses on quick, easy, from-scratch cooking for busy people. A single mother to two kids in middle school, Sarah loves nightly family dinners, juicy tomatoes plucked fresh from the vine and lazy days on the beach. She also adores reading and traveling.