I recently asked for guidance from readers who hail from Rhode Island about the true nature of the state’s clam chowder, after getting a request from Carol Greene of Coeur d’Alene.
Most people agree that true Rhode Island clam chowder is made with fresh quahogs, clam juice and potatoes.
Beyond that, disagreement abounds. Some say salt pork is key; others add bacon or tomatoes, or neither.
The addition of cream or milk, it seems, is a capitulation to tourists, who expect clam chowder in New England to be white. To get around this, some restaurants will serve a pitcher of hot milk along with their clear chowder.
Here’s what Mary Seagram of Medical Lake had to say:
“I grew up in Rhode Island, and my parents lived most of their married life in Rhode Island. Every summer we made several trips to Galilee, R.I. (near Narragansett), to watch the fishing boats come in and to buy seafood.
“One purchase was always quahogs. My mother would open the quahogs and carefully save all the juices. Then she ground the meat in the old meat grinder that screwed onto the countertop. A large bowl set on the floor under the grinder would catch any additional juices.
“The chowder was made with the clam juices, sliced onions, cubed potatoes, the clams and salt and pepper to taste. There was no recipe but it always seemed to turn out the same.
“It’s impossible to make this chowder with ingredients available in Spokane. So sad!”
Seagram’s recollections mirror a recipe printed this past summer in the Boston Globe, based on one from Evelyn’s Drive-In, a well-known seaside shack in Tiverton, R.I.
Clams, juice, potatoes, onions, salt, pepper, bay leaf and butter – it’s simplicity in a bowl.
Well, except for the fact that here in the Inland Northwest, quahogs are nonexistent. So I headed to my local fish market to see what I could get.
One look at the tiny Manilas in the case and my heart sank. The recipe called for four cups of chopped clams and four cups of clam juice. It would take a lot of Manilas to get that yield, and I had neither a pot nor a budget big enough for the job.
Then the man behind the counter of Fisherman’s Market and Grill in Coeur d’Alene made my day – he told me Costco sells the big, restaurant-pack cans of chopped clams and juice, 51 ounces each. Perfect.
Really perfect, it turns out. One of those big cans easily contained four cups of clams and almost four cups of juice, making Rhode Island clam chowder a simple weekend dinner option. Open can, pour in pot, add other ingredients, cook and voila! Dinner.
And a delicious one, too. Even my 4-year-old chowed down.
It is exactly what it claims to be: clam chowder. Clams are the predominant flavor, salty and briny and yummy.
The cooked russets add their trademark crumbly texture. The butter brings a nice richness to the finished bowl, but if you’re watching your fat grams, I would think the butter could be reduced or even eliminated.
No, it’s probably not nearly as good as the chowders of Seagram’s childhood, but on a cold January night in the Inland Northwest, it’s a warm reminder of ocean breezes and roiling tides.
Rhode Island Clam Chowder
Adapted by the Boston Globe from Evelyn’s Drive-In, Tiverton, R.I.
4 cups chopped sea clams
4 cups (32 ounces) bottled clam broth
2 cups water
1/4 onion, finely chopped
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon coarse salt, or more to taste (see note)
1 teaspoon black pepper
4 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into a 3/4-inch dice
In large flameproof casserole, combine the clams, clam broth, water, onion, butter, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Set over high heat and bring to a boil.
Add the potatoes and let the liquid return to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer the chowder for 40 minutes or until the potatoes are tender but not falling apart.
With a slotted spoon, remove 1/2 cup of the potatoes. In a food processor, work the potatoes to form a puree. Stir them back into the chowder. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, if you like.
Yield: 6 servings.
Note: Because the canned clams and clam juice I bought already contained salt, I didn’t add any more. Tasting the broth, I thought it was plenty salty as it was. If you are using fresh clams and making your own clam juice, or are using another brand of bottled juice that doesn’t contain salt, I would add the one teaspoon. As always, taste before serving and add more salt if needed.