Memorial Day is fast approaching – the sunny holiday which ushers in the summer season, lots of grilling, time at the seashore, and – for me – clam chowder. Blame it on my New England roots, but slurping down a bowl of steaming hot, buttery rich chowder is right up there with building sand castles and smearing on sunscreen when I think of summer. Chowders are actually quite easy to make, a simple concoction of milk and cream, potatoes, and clams. If you are not feeling the clams, you can add firm fleshed fish such as salmon and halibut and call it a fish chowder. The key is to get a smoky base to the soup with bacon (or in fish chowders, I’ll add warm-smoked salmon), and a little thickness with a roux (which is simply a little flour mixed into the fat from the bacon) and have fun with your vegetables. Potatoes and onion are standard, and I often add leeks or mild root vegetables, such as celery root, or even spinach. When you are selecting clams be sure to choose the smallest you can get your hands on, such as little necks, middle necks, or, if you are on the U.S. west coast, manila clams.
2 slices bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
1 medium leek, white part only, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups chicken stock, divided
1/2 pound small fingerling potatoes, cut in 1/4-inch coins
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs fresh thyme
12 manila or middle neck clams or 24 little neck clams
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fry the bacon in the oil in a large pot over medium heat until the fat is nearly rendered. Add the onion and leek and sauté until softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Sprinkle the flour into the pot, and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until very lightly colored, stirring constantly. Whisk in 1 cup of the stock, stirring to blend the flour. Add the remaining stock, the potatoes, milk, cream, bay leaf, and thyme. Bring to a simmer, partially cover and cook until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Add the clams, partially cover the pot and simmer over medium heat until the clams open, stirring occasionally, 6 to 8 minutes. Discard any unopened clam shells. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve hot garnished with fresh thyme.