Not Gloppy Clam Chowder

I'm the granddaughter of a fisherman from Newfoundland - North America's easternmost crag; a weather-worn island that, once upon a time, teemed with cod. Cod and...well, not much else. It's so freakin' cold in Newfoundland that salt cod (dried and salted fish), potatoes, and cabbage were often the only thing on hand. No wonder the people there make such damn good soup - it's all you can do with such meager offerings. I'm lucky enough to have a soup master of a mother who taught me all secrets to making something out of nothin'. It's a thing in my family. Almost genetic, let's say.

Here in the bay, fish chowder is also a thing - a gloppy thing of the clam variety, beige and uniform and doled out to the foreign masses at Fisherman's Wharf.

Needless to say, as a product of Canada and a San Francisco Bay Area resident, I have some thoughts and feelings about clam chowder. Unfortunately, many tourists to our fair city eat this glop-in-a-bread bowl without knowing how incredibly SUBLIME a really good bowl of chowder can be.

That's why, when Airbnb asked me to host an authentic San Francisco experience for a bunch of travelers from around the world, I decided to make them some. And thus, the Canadian girl fed the weary travelers this nourishing potion, each precious element floating in a gold- and green-flecked broth, not at all homogeneous or beige, and it did not glop, and it did not gloop, and it was good. Amen.

Not Gloppy Newfie Clam Chowder

Ok, first things first: you're going to need some good fish stock. You can buy this from most fish mongers or nice grocery stores - just make sure it's made in house and fresh or frozen, not from a tetrapak. You can also make it:

Making Fish Stock:

Most fish counters will have bones available if you ask. The best ones are non-oily white fish - I usually use halibut, but cod and bass work too. Take your fish bones (you can use fish heads, too - but not gills) and rinse them well before cooking.

In a big pot, melt a half stick of butter and add 2 finely chopped leeks (make sure to rinse them well; they're gritty) and two finely chopped carrots. You can also use a few chopped celery stocks, or replace the leeks with onion. Stock is hella flexible like that :)

Cook the vegetables (this particular combo is called mirepoix in French and is the base of many a tasty thing) for 5-10 minutes, or until they start taking on a little color and are soft. Add your fish bones and sweat for another 5 minutes. Add a good lonnnnnng splash of white wine - probably at least a cup, and let everything come to a boil. Cover the bones with water and toss in some herbs - a few bay leaves, some parsley stems and leaves, some peppercorns, some thyme if you have it.

Bring to a simmer - not a boil. Boiling fish stock will make it cloudy and possibly a bit bitter. Let it simma' for about 45 minutes. Yep - that's it! Unlike chicken or beef broth, it doesn't have to cook for hours upon hours. When it's done, add salt to taste.

PRO TIP: If you put your pot a little off the burner, any weird stuff that's floated to the top will float to the side of the pot, making it easier to scoop it out and clarify everything.

Ok! Now that you're a fish stock expert...

The Soup

  • 2-3 pounds of clams - preferably littleneck - about 25 clams
  • 1/2 LB pork lardons (or chopped bacon)
  • dry white wine
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2 head of celery, chopped into 1/4in pieces
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme, stems removed
  • two large potatoes, peeled & cubed
  • fish stock
  • 2 bottles of clam juice
  • Optional: 1 can baby clams
  • 1 cup cream
  • ~ 1 cup frozen or fresh corn
  • salt & pepper

First, wash and scrub your clams. Place in a big pot with 1/2 inch of water at the bottom and bring to a boil. Remove from heat after 3-4 minutes - clams should be open. Discard any dead ones that didn't open. Line a sieve with cheesecloth or a paper towel and drain clams over a bowl, saving juice and clams but leaving any gritty bits trapped in the paper towel (no one likes sandy food!). Set aside.

Heat a big pot over medium and throw in bacon. Cook, stirring occasionally until all of the fat has rendered out and the bits are dark golden brown. Remove half of the bacon and set aside. Add onion to pot and stir - splash with a bit of white wine to get brown bits off the bottom and keep things from burning. Continue cooking onion until soft. Add more wine - at least a cup - but save some for yourself to drink. Let it boil for a minute or two, and add celery, potatoes, thyme, and about 4-5 cups stock. Bring to a simmer and let cook until potatoes get soft (about 8 minutes).

Bring down to a low heat and add clams and clam juice (reserved from steaming and/or jarred), cream, corn, and salt to taste (you will likely need a fair amount). Cook gently for at least five minutes, but do not bring to a boil.

To serve: cut the top off a small sourdough round of bread and use your fingers to rip out its guts. Brush lightly with oil or melted butter and toast on low until it's kinda crunchy. Ladle soup into bread bowl and top with chopped chives and reserved crispy bacon. You can use parsley, too - I did! Enjoy.

This recipe is in honor of my Oppy, who I have to thank for this fish chowder and for my long skinny legs.

This recipe is in honor of my Oppy, who I have to thank for this fish chowder and for my long skinny legs.