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.
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.