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