New England Clam Chowder

My mom’s clam chowder is my quintessential winter food.

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Winter has come to Northern California.

Those in the know may protest and tell me that there are weeks yet to go before it’s really winter, but I say they don’t live in a chilly basement in Oakland. Oakland, where cold rain danced with bright rainbows and sunbeams today, and where there’s a Christmas tree lot right across the street.

It’s winter, okay? And that means so many delicious things: Long walks in the rain; sex with the heater on (did I say that out loud?); and soup.

Mmmmmm, soup. We’ve shared several soups with you, but when winter hits, for some strange reason, I need the perfect blend of dairy and heartiness that is my mom’s clam chowder.

bowl of clam chowder

I often joke that my mom’s clam chowder is really more of a cream sauce with clams and potatoes thrown in. This isn’t far from the truth. I spent my early childhood in New England, so it may be no surprise that this is New England clam chowder. Never mind that my mom was raised a stone’s throw from Manhattan. There are no tomatoes in my mom’s chowder; never have been, never will be.

You won’t find an easier or simpler recipe for clam chowder, I’m thinking. No seasoning beyond salt and pepper, no roux (mom thickens most things with a cornstarch slurry), and no measuring. Just go to it.

I’m a freak who loves this stuff cold, too. Try it! It’s like fishy vichyssoise. Okay, that doesn’t sound that great, but really, it’s good. I promise.

Mom Vannoy’s Clam Chowder
As is often the case with my mom’s recipes, the amounts here are just an approximation. Use your tastes as a guide, not ours. Lots of butter, lots of milk, is the basic idea (and mom told me to tell you that), but you should also feel free to lighten it up if your arteries demand it. I’ve subbed half the milk with good chicken broth, and it’s delicious that way, as well. I’ve also added the clams at the very end of the process, and not seen a great deal of difference, so I add them at the beginning the way mom does. You’d think it would overcook them, but they come out tender and delicious.

1 stick (4 oz.) butter
1 large onion, chopped
3 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 gallon whole milk
canned clams, approximately 20-25 ounces total, undrained
salt to taste
lots of ground black pepper
slurry made of around 1/4 cup cornstarch and enough water to make it pourable

Melt the butter on medium heat in a large, heavy soup pot. Add onions and potatoes and sauté, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent, around 10-15 minutes. Add milk, clams and their liquid, salt, and pepper. If necessary, add more liquid (water, stock, bottled clam juice, or more milk) to cover. Bring the soup up just to a boil. Lower heat and simmer 30 minutes, until potatoes are very soft.

At this point, you get to decide how thick you want the chowder. Some people like it thin like this. My mother makes hers so thick it looks like a Chunky Soup commercial, with the spoon standing up in the thick, milky goodness. The way you get the thickness you like is you stir the cornstarch slurry, add a little bit of it to the soup while it simmers, and bring the soup back to the simmer. When it comes back to a simmer, that’s how thick it will be. Add more slurry if you want it thicker; if you go too far, add some more liquid to thin it out again.

This quantity makes about 5 quarts of soup, or around 10 two-cup servings.

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Author: Serene

I run The Mom Food Project, which was born out of love for my mom and a desire to preserve the recipes of my childhood, which didn't actually exist in written form until I quizzed my mom and wrote the recipes down.

10 thoughts on “New England Clam Chowder”

  1. Oh, dear, I guess I’ll have to make some chowder to my Mom’s recipe. Salt pork starts it off, and it’s not thickened at all. Will probably have to make corn chowder, as you can’t get minced clams here, and I don’t eat much fish. We’ll see what comes about.

    At least it didn’t have tomatoes in it! Sounds delicious!

    1. Ooh, I’ll look forward to it.

      (Silly note: I took the leftover baked beans and salt pork, rinsed them, and cooked them with chorizo, to make the best burrito filling we’ve had in a while. The kid is eating it for breakfast at this very moment. :-)

      1. All I can say is, “WOW!” I will try that (without rinsing, as I like the sauce) sometime. Breakfast burritos! Say “Hi!” to the kid for me!

          1. I wonder if the Boston Baked Bean recipe could be altered slightly to make a less sweet dish that could be used in burritos or other bean dishes…reduce the molasses and increase the tomato ketchup, perhaps. Also, I wonder if black beans would substitute…

            I have heard tell of bean recipes that used brown sugar ALONG WITH molasses. Get the insulin! ;-)

  2. You are so refreshing, Serene. You just make me giggle. :) I love, love clam chowder and I am going to have to try yours. Yes, yes winter is here. We have never had it this early that I can recall. Brrr…your mom’s chowder is perfect on a cold northern california evening like tonight. Stay warm!

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