Smoky, Creamy Clam Chowder (or Oyster Stew) Recipe
By Kelly Dean
I make all creamy shellfish stews and chowders with basically the same approach and ingredients, including clams and oysters. Cajun or Creole gumbos are different, of course.
In this recipe, sinus flavor depth comes from using smoked bacon, providing that fire-side smokiness when at the beach. Shellfish flavor hits at the soft palate. The sweet, creamy flavor hits the tongue. Getting good flavor balance in all three areas is the secret to great soups and stews.
This recipe does not call for starchy thickeners (cornstarch, flour, etc.) beyond the gradually softening potatoes. You may thicken if desired but I recommend mashing one of the potatoes instead, if needed.
1 half-pound of smoked bacon, cut into short, one-inch pieces
16 ounces fresh shucked clams or oysters, with juice (or one pint jar of fresh — never frozen — oysters, or 3-8 oz. canned boiled oysters or 7-6.5 oz. canned clams — all with juice for cooking potatoes — do not used smoked varieties)
2-3 cups of whole milk (depending upon the quality and freshness of shellfish)
3 heaping tablespoons of sour cream (1/3 to 1 cup)
5 medium potatoes (about 2.5 pounds), cut into one-inch pieces
1 medium onion chopped into over-sized strips
2 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce
2 heaping tablespoons of wet, minced garlic
Thyme to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon of liquid hickory smoke sauce (optional)
2 tablespoons of soy sauce (optional)
In the bottom of a large stewpot, start browning the one-half pound of bacon pieces cut into 2-inch pieces on low heat until floppy-brown.
While it’s browning, cut up the six large potatoes into 1-inch triangular pieces and chop one onion. Shuck your clams or oysters if they are fresh; try to have a pound/pint of shellfish with juice when done — by weight or volume.
If you buy canned clams, you will need about seven to eight 6.5 oz. cans in clam juice. Although the juice thins the mess, the potatoes ultimately thicken the mess. Some juice will be reduced when cooking the other ingredients as well.
Once the bacon is browned, pour most, not all of the bacon grease aside for some other use, turn the burner to medium low and add the clams/oysters with the juice to the stewpot. Add the potato pieces, onion and two heaping tablespoons (dollops) of wet minced garlic, two tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper and stir the whole mess again and cover — on medium low.
The existing clam juice mix is the fluid used to cook the other ingredients at a very low boil. It takes about 1 1/2 cups of fluid to cook the potatoes and onions, leaving about 1 cup after steaming out. Adding water will only make the stew more soupy, but if necessary, use only what’s needed to cook the potatoes, onions and oysters.
Continue to simmer until potatoes are soft and the onion is semi-transparent, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Do not let it stick.
Add thyme, more salt and pepper and stir.
Stir in three heaping tablespoons (dollops, or about 2/3 to 1 cup) of sour cream until liquefied and blended, then add two to three cups of milk and stir. Turn off heat. Let it naturally simmer down to warm, but do not boil milk because milk will separate into a watery base if boiled or heated too long. Very warm, not boiling is the objective once milk and cream are added.
(If it boils thin by accident, do not fear, to thicken simply: 1) add cornstarch per directions, or 2) dry mashed potato flakes as needed or 3) crumble saltines in the bowl upon serving.)
Pour into a Crockpot on the “keep warm” setting and serve.
When done, it should have a three-way balance of sweet, creamy seafood flavor at the tongue, shellfish flavor at the palate, and smoky beach flavor in the sinus. It makes about 3 quarts and will have a creamy tan coloring due to the browned bacon and sauces. Serve with buttered cornbread or saltines.