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Warm up with these hearty chowders

Jan 30, 2024Jan 30, 2024

When our thermostat broke on a chilly day in December, the furnace guys who came to our rescue could not stop talking about clam chowder. The soup is so hearty that even the thought of spooning up some its creamy goodness can warm you.

Clams, potatoes and onions sauteed in bacon drippings — that’s pure comfort food in the winter. But if you’re from New England, you’re probably enjoying this clammy concoction year-round.

Serious chowderheads from that region can argue endlessly about where to find the best bowl and the merits of the various carbs to serve with it. But even on its own, with just a spoon, the seaworthy soup has inspired poetic odes.

“Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me,” wrote “Moby Dick” author Herman Melville. “It was made of small, juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazelnuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.”

The history of clam chowder is a bit opaque, like the broth itself. Originally considered a poor man’s stew, the predecessors to today’s chowders date back centuries to fishing villages around the world. They were made from vegetables and fish stewed in a large cauldron. The word “chowder” is believed to have its root in the Latin word “calderia.”

Food historians have theorized that French or Nova Scotians first introduced fish stew to the New England settlers. The Pilgrims were slow to incorporate shellfish into their meals, so it was the Native Americans who made history by marrying the sweet, briny clams to the creamy broth.

By the mid-1800s, the classic New England-style clam chowder had become a fixture on menus throughout the region. Boston’s Union Oyster House, the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the U.S., has served it up since 1836. That’s a lot of chowdah!

As we all know, this iconic stew has inspired multiple spin-offs in America. But those who revere the original New England version do not recognize the tomato-based Manhattan version as the real deal. It’s the chowder that dares not say its name.

“Manhattan Chowder is not a chowder,” said Seadon Shouse, chef/partner of the Coast Kitchen at the Timber Cove Inn in Jenner. “I consider it a tomato-clam based soup. To me, chowder is creamy.”

New England takes this clam dish so seriously that in 1939, the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill making tomatoes in clam chowder illegal. A truce was negotiated with the recent invention of Long Island Chowder, a mashup of tomatoes and cream. Think creamy tomato soup, and it doesn’t sound so bad.

Here on the West Coast, clam chowder has become synonymous with seaside dining, and we often like a side of ocean view to go with our bowls, whether we’re at a casual deli or a white-tablecloth restaurant.

The accouterments are usually simple but carb-driven. If you’re from the Northeast, you’re going to go with a handful of oyster crackers. Here on the West Coast, we sometimes christen it with a new vessel consisting of a sourdough bread bowl.

At Coast Kitchen in Jenner, Shouse gives the chowder an East Coast twist by using smoked trout raised by Duck Trap Farms of Maine. The native of Nova Scotia also serves a version of the Smoked Trout Chowder at his restaurant Halifax, located on the Hudson River in Hoboken, New Jersey.

For the chowder, Shouse likes to use clam juice for its briny-yet-mild and fresh ocean flavor. He adds potatoes, onions and fennel, thyme and bay leaf, then slowly pours in heavy cream, often stabilizing it with a bit of cornstarch slurry.

“With the trout, you don’t taste the clam juice, but the background has a developed flavor,” he said. “And we finish it at the very end with fresh dill.”

Although his bi-coastal commute can be tough in the summer, when he goes back and forth often, the setting at Timber Cove on a dramatic cliff overlooking a picturesque ocean cove tends to relax him and make him feel at home.

“I grew up on the ocean,” he said. “The seaweed was on our roof in the middle of a storm. I fished from the rocks and the wharves.”

Shouse and his Coast Kitchen team, which includes two chef de cuisines, will be cooking the entree for a special dinner on March 24 at the Sonoma International Film Festival (SIFF). The Devour dinner honors legendary chef Jacques Pepin, who will be there to receive the first-ever SIFF Culinary Excellence Award.

In addition, Shouse is in the final stages of writing a cookbook about his culinary roots in Nova Scotia that also highlights the cross-fertilization between his East and West coast restaurants, Halifax and Coast Kitchen.

“It will have recipes for wild Pacific salmon and Pacific oysters and Dungeness crab,” he said. “The Smoked Trout Chowder is in it, and a soup from Nova Scotia called Hodge-Podge.”

At Coastal Kitchen restaurant at the Dillon Beach Resort, Chef Jennifer McMurry makes a classic New England-style clam chowder that she enriches with rock cod.

“We use chopped clams, some clam juice, some potatoes and some leeks,” she said. “It’s a little bit more of an East Coast style. ... You get a real seafood depth to it, because of the rock cod in there offsetting the sweetness of the clams.”

McMurry tops it with bacon crumbles and chives. To make it a complete meal, she serves it with a generous slice of housemade focaccia.

Although the restaurant started with formal table service, McMurry has overseen a reinvention since she took over the kitchen in April. Now, the restaurant offers more casual counter service that is family-friendly and efficient.

“It makes sense,” she said. “You’re at the beach, and it allows us to get people in and get them fed and keep the pace moving. It can be super, super-busy.”

Along with coastal classics like chowder and fish and chips, McMurry has added a few upscale dishes, such as an Ahi Tuna with Avocado and Local Pea Shoots, just to keep things interesting.

“I’ve tried to find a balance between some really great, quality food, but still keep it super-approachable,” she said. “It should be a little bit fun.”

This recipe is from Chef Seadon Shouse, chef/partner of the Coast Kitchen at Timber Cove Lodge and Resort in Jenner and Halifax restaurant at The W Hotel in Hoboken, New Jersey. A native of Nova Scotia, he uses the smoked trout from Ducktrap River of Maine, which is nationally distributed.

Smoked Trout Chowder

Serves 6 to 8

4-5 cloves fresh garlic, minced

2 cups onion, small dice

2 cups celery, small dice

2 cups fresh fennel, small dice

2 bay leaves

3-4 sprigs fresh thyme

1 liter (4 cups) clam juice

1 liter (4 cups) heavy cream

3 cups fingerling potatoes, small dice

2 cups smoked trout, medium dice

Sea salt and black pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons cornstarch

½ bunch fresh dill, chopped

Heat a medium-size pot over medium-low heat; add the garlic, onions, celery, fennel, bay leaves and thyme to the pot; and sweat until vegetables are tender but do not have color. Add clam juice, cream, about a teaspoon of salt and a couple grinds of pepper to the pot.

Once it simmers, add the potatoes and smoked trout and continue to cook for another 10 to 15 minutes. Once the potatoes are tender, season with more salt and pepper, if needed. Dissolve the cornstarch in a little cold water and whisk into the hot soup to thicken. Cook for another 2 to 3 minutes and top with chopped fresh dill just before serving.

This recipe is from Chef Jennifer McMurray of Coastal Kitchen restaurant at the Dillon Beach Resort. The addition of rock cod gives the chowder a thicker texture, and the seafood flavor balances the sweetness of the clams.

Coastal Kitchen Clam Chowder

Makes 4-6 servings

1 cup yellow onion, diced

¾ cup leeks, sliced in half and diced

1 cup celery, diced

3 ounces butter

3 ounces flour

½ gallon whole milk

17 ounces clam juice

4 cups Yukon gold potatoes, diced

38 ounces of canned, chopped clams

1 pound rock cod

½ teaspoon fresh thyme

Salt and pepper, to taste

Bacon crumbles and chopped chives, optional garnish

In a large pot, sweat the onion, celery and leeks until soft.

Add butter and melt, then add flour and whisk to make a roux. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes to cook out the flour taste. Add milk gradually until fully incorporated. Once it’s warm, add the clam juice.

Bring up to a simmer and add potatoes. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until potatoes are cooked.

Meanwhile, roast the rock cod in a 350-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until the cod is cooked.

Once the potatoes are cooked, add the clams to the chowder and then add the cod. Add the fresh thyme and season with salt and pepper.

To serve, garnish with bacon crumbles and chopped chives, if desired.

In honor of National Clam Chowder Day on Feb. 25, Hog Island Oyster Co. of Marshall shared this recipe for their legendary clam chowder, made with the whole Manila clams that they raise in Tomales Bay.

In developing the recipe, Hog Island co-founder John Finger gave the chef strict instructions to use only fresh clams and no flour to thicken this chowder. The result is a creamy broth surrounding a mass of tiny, sweet clams. The chowder is served at their restaurants, including Tony’s Seafood Restaurant in Marshall. To order Manila clams, go to and click on Shop Online.

Hog Island Clam Chowder

Serves 6 to 8

6 pounds small, raw Hog Island Manila clams in the shell, rinsed

8-10 medium-size Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-size cubes

2 tablespoons butter

3 sprigs fresh thyme

½ pound high-quality bacon, sliced

2 large leeks, white part only, thinly sliced on the diagonal

½ small stalk celery, thinly sliced

1 large carrot, peeled and thinly sliced

1 quart heavy cream

Salt and cracked pepper

Parsley, for garnish

Place clams in a colander in the kitchen sink and rinse thoroughly under running water. Pick through and discard clams with broken or open shells. Allow clams to drain in the sink while you prepare the stock.

In a large stockpot, bring about 5 - 6 cups of water to a boil (no salt) and cook the potatoes until al dente, or just before fork-tender. While the potatoes are boiling, in a second heavy-bottom pot, melt the butter with the thyme. Render the bacon in the butter and thyme (over low heat; careful not to burn). Once bacon is rendered, add leeks and celery and cook until vegetables are translucent. Add carrots and cook until bendable without breaking. Add the potatoes and 4 cups of the potato water. Set aside. This base can be made (up to one day) ahead and kept chilled.

Portion out your clams by single or double servings (about ¾ pound per serving). Working in batches, place the serving(s) of clams in a heavy-bottom saute pan over medium heat. Ladle 1 cup of the chowder base on top and cover the pan. Simmer for about 5 minutes, or until the majority of clams open. Skim through and pick out any clams that have not opened. (Don’t skip this step — unopened clams may spoil the chowder.)

Add ½ cup cream per serving and bring the chowder to a simmer (about 1 to 2 minutes). If it is too thick, add in more of the potato water. When the chowder is bubbling in the middle, it is ready to serve. Taste for salt and add salt if necessary. Pour individual servings into warm soup bowls.

Garnish with cracked pepper and chopped parsley and serve with warm crusty French bread to soak up the broth. Place extra empty bowls on the table for discarding clamshells. Enjoy!

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or [email protected]. On Twitter @dianepete56

Smoked Trout ChowderCoastal Kitchen Clam ChowderHog Island Clam Chowder