(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding
When I think of clam chowder I picture myself walking down a pier, hands buried deep in my peacoat pockets, fog rolling in, and seagulls squawking overhead. Oh - and some guy sitting on the edge, legs dangling over the side, whistling and singing this song. And I'm not kidding. I really do. It's like I somehow spliced myself into an Otis Redding music video. I like it that this is my musical reaction to this delicious dish. Oh - and it also makes me think of building homes.
When we were first married my husband worked construction, building homes, while he was going to school. It was hard work - hot in the summer and bitter cold in the winter. If you planned it right, you'd have your houses framed by the end of autumn so you could work on the insides during the winter.
It was during this end-of-fall season when my husband was working up on the roof of one of the houses. He was nailing away and heard a clink of something falling down and off the roof. He did a quick look, didn't see anything, so just supposed that one of the nails had fallen out of his nail apron. He finished up his work and headed home. While he was cleaning up for dinner he noticed that his wedding band was gone. Uh-oh! Guess it hadn't been a nail after all!
He searched and searched for that ring over the next few weeks and never found it. Winter came and it was a pretty harsh one with lots of snow and wind. The ring was a lost cause.
The following spring, after most of the snow had melted off, he was at that same house doing a final clean-up on the outside as the house was about finished. He was walking by a mud puddle and, out of the corner of his eye, noticed something shiny in the puddle. He stopped, bent down, and leaned in for a closer inspection. He reached in and pulled out the object and found that he was holding his wedding band! He couldn't believe it and neither could I! What are the odds of finding something as small as a ring after a winter like that? Whatever they are, he sure beat them!
My favorite date nights that first year of marriage were when he'd take me to walk through a home when it was almost finished. They were beautiful homes with lots of special details. We'd dream about the day when maybe we'd be able to build a home like one of these. "If only," I'd think.
My husband enjoyed building homes and working with his hands. He also enjoyed working with some great guys. Once in awhile we'd get together with their families on the weekend. One night one of the guys and his wife had us over to their home for dinner. I can't remember their names or much else about that night but I do remember what she served. It was a delicious clam chowder. Delicious! Being a newlywed I was anxious to get my hands on good and easy recipes so I could make decent meals for my husband - something with which I had been struggling up to that point. (We won't talk about the very first meal I prepared.) But as the wife of the co-worker told me how to make this chowder I was thinking that I might have found a recipe I could successfully repeat. Yay! She wrote the recipe down for me and I embarked on years (over 33 of them now) of successful clam chowder meals.
Our food budget was miniscule so we didn't have it too often at first, but when cans of clams went on sale it was a happy day for my husband! I served it with homemade bread, cornbread, or my fresh biscuits. A wonderful meal, indeed!
I've made this recipe with variations on the milk ingredient over the years. It was always guided by what I happened to have on hand. We had some pretty lean years when we were starting out. I didn't always have whole milk on hand or couldn't afford to use so much of it on one dish. I have used skim milk to cut calories and it tasted great but wasn't nearly as thick. I have used half & half and it produced a slightly sweet flavor. I have even used a combination of regular milk and evaporated milk to equal the amount required. Surprisingly, this was delicious! I started adding the carrots in just the last few years purely for color - but the taste is great, too.
Printable Recipe Card
2 t. butter
1 c. chopped celery
1 c. chopped onion
1 c. chopped carrots
2 c. chopped potatoes
3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 cans clams, either chopped or whole, reserve the juice
3/4 c. butter
3/4 c. flour
1 qt. whole milk
salt and pepper to taste
2 t. vinegar
Melt 2 t. butter in a sauce pan and lightly saute the celery, onion, and carrots for a few minutes, just until the onions are translucent. Add the sprigs of thyme and stir and heat a minute to bloom the herbs. Add the potatoes and the reserved liquid off of the cans of clams. Add enough water or seafood stock to cover the vegetables, bring to a boil, and then simmer until veggies are barely fork tender.
In another pan, melt the 3/4 c. butter and whisk in the flour. You are making a roux (pronounced ROO) - a thickener for the chowder. You want to cook this just until you start getting a slightly nutty aroma. What you are doing is cooking out the raw flour flavor. If you've ever had a gravy that you couldn't quite figure out what it was you didn't like, it was most likely because you were getting a raw flour taste - not desirable. You shouldn't get any color to this roux, though. A roux works like this: the less you cook it, the blonder (lighter) it is, the more thickening power it has. The longer you cook it, the darker it gets, the less thickening power it has. But you do have to cook it - and, in this case, just enough to get out the raw flavor. If it's browning too fast on you, lower your heat.
Once your butter and flour are ready, whisk in the milk and heat and stir until you have a very thick consistency.
Once the veggies are ready in one pan and the roux is ready in the other, combine the two pans - I suggest stirring the roux into the veggie mix. Add the clams and heat and stir until the chowder is well blended. The liquid from the veggies will loosen up the roux and you should be left with a velvety "broth." If you want it thicker, raise the heat a little and cook a little longer, stirring frequently as it likes to scorch.
Season to taste with the salt and pepper. Stir in the vinegar. Taste the chowder before and after the addition of the vinegar. You will be surprised at how it elevates the flavors. Do not be tempted to add the vinegar earlier. Acids can interfere with the thickening process. Remove the thyme stems and serve. Garnish with some fresh thyme, if desired.