Chef Nicholas Vogel has strong opinions about chowder.
As far as the tomato-based Coney Island cousin to the classic New England version, the regional area executive chef for EHP Hospitality Group somewhat humorously explains, “It’s not a real chowder; I think it belongs more in the minestrone family.”
While those might be fighting words for some, many chowder purists (and celebrants of National Clam Chowder Day on February 25th) would most likely agree. According to The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, the iconic, creamy, oh-so soothing New England-style recipe was first mentioned in print in 1751 on the pages of the Boston Evening Post, but it likely dates back several decades before. And, no surprise, the name itself appears to have some potential French origins (because, hello, cream!) in the word chaudiére, for the cauldron that French sailors would use to make communal fish stew.
Vogel leans toward a brothier New England-style recipe, making it as much about flavor than it is about texture, and that’s exactly why this recipe works so well.
Here, the Philadelphia-born chef opts for blended potatoes as a natural thickening agent, with just a touch a cream added toward the end of cooking, which still provides a base that’s satisfyingly creamy but not overwhelmingly so.
To ensure spoons full of proper chowder accoutrements, Vogel is a stickler for making sure that the potatoes, onion and celery are “roughly the same size” when chopped. He also uses salty pork pancetta for its fat content, cooked out with water and then crisped and removed from the pan with a slotted spoon.
Next, he adds those nicely cut veggies (minus the ‘taters) into the pork fat. “Sautéing the vegetables in the remaining pancetta fat with butter …is a wonderful base for the clams to steam open in,” he says.
While the cream and pork may be polarizing for some (although both are traditional), the one ingredient all chowder recipes share: Local clams.
Vogel likes using a mix of Shinnecock littlenecks, quahog (pronounced coe-hog, a species of hard-shelled clam), and even razor clams if they are available. Another important piece, says Vogel: “This recipe incorporates the natural clam juice, which has a higher salinity content.”
After removing the opened clams from the broth and chopping, the potatoes and milk are added, creating the New England-style signature white color. Once the potatoes are cooked, they are sieved through a strainer, blitzed in a blender, and added back to the pot with heavy cream.
“I can’t speak to everyone’s taste in a recipe,” Vogel says of the final seasoning, “but cracked black-pepper and clam chowder is like a chef’s kiss.”
Chef Nicholas Vogel’s New England Clam Chowder
- 1/2 lb pancetta cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1 cup onion finely chopped (about 1 medium onion)
- 1 cup celery finely chopped (about 2 celery ribs)
- 3 sprigs thyme leaves removed from stems
- 1 cup clam juice or water (clam juice is best!)
- 2 1/2 lbs live quahogs scrubbed
- 1 quart whole milk
- 1 1/2 lbs russet or Yukon Gold potatoes peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 2 bay leaves
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 cup heavy cream
- oyster crackers for serving
- Combine pancetta and 1/4 cup water in a heavy-bottomed stock pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until water has evaporated and pork has begun to crisp in spots, about 8 minutes. Remove pork with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper-towel lined plate. Set aside.
- Add butter, onion, celery and thyme into the pot. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are softened but not browned, about 4 minutes. Add clam juice or water and stir to combine.
- Add clams and increase heat to high. Cover and cook, opening lid to stir occasionally, until clams begin to open, about 3 minutes. As clams open, remove them with tongs and transfer to a large bowl, keeping as many juices in the pot as possible and keeping the lid shut as much as possible. After 8 minutes, discard any clams that have not yet begun to open.
- Add milk, potatoes, bay leaves and a pinch of salt and pepper to the pot. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are tender and starting to break down, about 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, remove the meat from inside the clams and roughly chop it. Discard the empty shells. Transfer chopped clams and as much juice as possible to a fine-mesh strainer set over a large bowl. Let the clams drain, then transfer the chopped clams to a separate bowl. Set both bowls aside.
- Once the potatoes are tender, pour the entire mixture through the fine-mesh strainer into the bowl with the clam juice, tapping the strainer with the back of a knife or a spoon to get the liquid to pass through. You should end up with a white, semi-broken broth. Transfer strained solids to the bowl with the chopped clams; add in the pancetta.
- Transfer the liquid to a blender and blend on high speed until smooth and emulsified, about 2 minutes. Return both the liquid and the solids back to the pot. Add heavy cream and stir to combine. Reheat until simmering. Season well with salt and pepper. Serve immediately with oyster crackers.
- For best results, use live clams. If live clams are unavailable, skip steps 2 and 4. In step 6, add 1 pound chopped canned or frozen clams to chowder before heating through to serve.