Last week, I headed up to Cape Cod for my cousin's wedding. My aunt had rented a house for the family and it had its own little private beach where we could go clamming. Our first attempt, at high tide, was a total failure.
The next day I arranged my plans around the tide charts. My dad asked me to drop him off at the bus station so he could catch a bus to Boston, and I encouraged him to take the last one possible so that I could be home at the low-tide mark. (I didn't necessarily tell him that was my reason for suggesting the later bus.) I didn't have a bathing suit, so I rolled my exercise pants high up around my thighs, tied a floating basket to my knee, and waded out into the numbing October water.
I was not warm. But I came back with a small haul of clams, and after eating one raw right away, I packed the rest up on ice and drove them back down to New York City.
Once home, I thought about how to prepare them. A chowder came to mind—I was still having flashbacks to being waist-deep in frigid water—but I didn't have any cream, and Kenji has already done a pretty exhaustive job on that one. Instead, I decided to make a Rhode Island-style chowder: clear, brothy, and cream-free. The kind of chowder that really emphasizes the flavor of the clams more than anything.
I started by cooking diced bacon in a Dutch oven until crispy. Then I stirred in diced aromatics like onion, carrot, celery, and garlic, and cooked them until softened. Carrot is not always traditional in the clear chowders of Rhode Island, but I like the way it tastes and the color it adds. I didn't worry about pouring off the excess bacon fat at this point, since it's easy to skim off the soup later.
The next step was to add liquid, starting with a small amount of white wine, which adds flavor and mild tartness. For the rest of the broth, you'll find that recipes vary. Some call for clam broth, either homemade or bottled, some call for fish stock, others just use water. I decided to use chicken stock, both because it's the most readily available (aside from water, but that's too bland) and also because I really like what chicken stock does in a soup like this.
When I wrote my article on basic chicken stock, one of the main points I wanted to get across is how versatile a simple white chicken stock (i.e. one made from un-roasted chicken and vegetables) can be. This shellfish soup is a great example. It doesn't end up tasting like chicken—it tastes like really rich clam broth with a nice kick of smoke from the bacon.
The other great thing about chicken stock is that, if made well, it will contain lots of gelatin, which yields a broth with plenty of body and texture. If you don't have gelatin-rich homemade stock, you can improve store-bought stock by adding unflavored gelatin to it, which I strongly recommend doing. It makes a world of difference.
The key with the chicken stock is to infuse it with the flavor of the clams, so I brought it up to a simmer and then added the clams. They'll pop open one by one as they succumb to the heat, releasing their juices into the broth. You just have to pick them out with tongs as they open.
A lot of people say to discard any bivalves that don't open since it's a sign that they're long dead and dangerous to eat. This advice doesn't make much sense, since clams and mussels pop open when they die—a clam or mussel that refuses to open is about as likely to be dead as a guy shouting, "I feel happy!"* More often, unopened ones just need to be cooked longer and will eventually open. Some clams won't open wide, but almost all will open at least a crack and can then be pried open more fully with a knife. In the rare instance that one doesn't open at all, even after prolonged cooking, you can still try to open it by sliding a knife between the shells. If it smells off or is filled with mud, obviously get rid of it, but otherwise it'll be just fine, as this Australian industry study on mussels found.
An uncooked bivalve that won't close, on the other hand, is something to worry about: send it to the morgue, not your soup pot.
This is a good moment to talk about purging clams. Fresh live clams can sometimes contain sand, and in my restaurant days we'd purge them in changes of salt water to remove it. Some people say to add cornmeal to the salt water, but I've never needed it. I usually do about 30 minutes to 1 hour for each change of salt water, and I'll change the water as many times as it takes until there's no trace of sand on the bottom of the container. I've never done side-by-side tests, but it makes sense to me that if the clams are spitting out sand into the salt-water bath, it's sand that would otherwise have been in the clams without that bath.
Okay, back to the soup: Once the clams were all open and I'd plucked them from the broth, I added diced Yukon gold potatoes to the soup and simmered them until tender. While the potatoes were cooking, I removed the clam meat from the shells and chopped it up. When the potatoes were done, I added the clam meat back to the soup. At this point the soup is basically ready: cook the clams much more and they'll get tough.
A little fresh parsley stirred in and it's ready to eat.
For a soup this flavorful and warming, I'd be willing to wade out into the open water in the middle of February with ice floes floating by. I guess it's a good thing I live in a city.