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 (about 1/3 cup)
5 medium potatoes (about 2.5 pounds), cut into 1.5-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 five potatoes into 1-inch triangular pieces and chop one onion. Shuck your clams or oysters if they are fresh; try to have at lease one pound/pint of shellfish with juice — 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.
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 the juice of the shellfish only 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 clam juice fluid to cook the potatoes and onions, leaving about 1 cup after steaming out. Juice does not have to completely cover potatoes at low heat if covered. Adding water will only make the stew thinner, 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.
Stir. Then add the actual clams to the top of the pot and gently distribute them over the top of the potatoes to cook. Add thyme, more salt and pepper. Cover. Simmer for 5 more minutes to cook-steam shellfish.
Gently stir in three heaping tablespoons (dollops, or about 2/3 cup) of sour cream until liquefied and blended but do not boil, then add two to three cups of milk and stir. Take pot off heat. Let it naturally simmer down (rest time) to warm, but do not boil milk or cream because dairy will curdle at over 180 degrees Fahrenheit into a watery base if boiled or heated too long. Hot, but not boiling (212 degrees) is the objective once milk and cream are added.
(If it boils and curdles by accident, do not fear, to thicken simply: 1) mix cornstarch in milk per directions and stir in, or 2) stir in dry mashed potato flakes as needed or 3) crumble saltines in the bowl upon serving.)
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 your head. It makes about 6-8 cups and will have a creamy tan coloring due to the browned bacon and sauces. Serve with buttered cornbread or saltines.