Clam Chowder, Cooking from the Pantry

I don’t know why, but the idea of a spicy version of Manhattan clam chowder started to nag at my brain recently. I enjoy the occasional cup of the stuff when out – either the red Manhattan style or even (although less frequently) the creamier New England version. I can’t say I go out of my way to get it, more like it is an acceptable option when navigating a menu at a diner with a desire to add a bit on, or alternatively maybe not indulge too much.

In general though, I find it lacking and I have never made it myself, nor thought much about it. But for some reason I recently began to think about how you could make a more substantial and spicier one, a zootier version if you will. I think it started because I had several cans of clams which I had purchased for the occasional fish pasta I make (usually with some shrimp, leftover fish bits and maybe some of the canned clams), but I am currently on a diet so pasta isn’t happening right now.

Ah yes, speaking of that diet, readers know I have opined a bit in previous posts about the comfort of cooking. I explored re-creating some family recipes during what I tend to think of as Pandemic Part 1: the First Six Months (those recipes can be found here and here), and some new comfort food (a lovely cheesy bread can be found here) which also made the first months of quarantine – The Weight Gaining Months.

Cheesy Olive Bread – I could live on it.

After a long period of thinking that dieting during a pandemic didn’t make sense, I have reversed course and I am now in Phase 2: the Dieting Months. However, I do not intend to abandon the comfort I take in cooking so I am now applying my skill to devising soups and stews. During these cold winter months they are wonderful and it is satisfying. I derive as much joy out of constructing them that I would from baking, and happily fill the apartment with the aroma of the newest concoction. I generally get several meals for the two of us out of each attempt which lightens the weekday burden of meal planning a bit.

The kitchen, mid-renovation

Meanwhile, pandemic life has made me consider (and establish) what I euphemistically call my pantry. For the record, my pantry is one tall, narrow kitchen cabinet and a banker’s box in the entryway closet recently pressed into service. Until I remodeled our kitchen it was entirely non-existent and a few cans and whatnot were tucked in among the dishes, pots and pans, overflowing onto the limited countertop. It expanded (to the closet annex) during the initial phase of NYC lockdown when grocery shopping was most difficult. It now contains some extra pasta, beans, vegetable broth and the like. (The tale of the kitchen renovation can largely be found here and here – not a chapter I am personally willing to revisit at the moment.)

Growing up in suburban New Jersey we had an amazing pantry that was a large, sort of five foot cabinet of shelves which folded up on itself, once and then again. (Amazing!) I was fairly entertained by the engineering of it as a child (the long piano hinges to bear the weight of each heavy section of shelf), and I am now in awe of the amount it held. Still, were I to move to the suburbs I would likely opt for a walk-in space, a small room of shelves, where I could see everything and bulk buy to my heart’s content. (I come from a long line of if not quite hoarders, folks who like to buy in large quantity and to be well stocked on essentials. My mother has been buying paper towels and toilet paper in bulk for decades and never thought twice about purchasing industrial sized tin cans of olive oil which I remember having trouble hefting.) I also aspire to having a kitchen sink large enough to bathe a small child or good size dog.

It is not to be my fate and instead our tiny apartment (equipped with its bar sink, sigh), requires a certain vigilance around rotating through and using up food, buying just enough to feel well stocked, but not crowding us and the cats out of the house. (I confess that the aforementioned diet and my increased consumption of fruit and vegetables is skewing all this and you can barely open our refrigerator after a Fresh Direct delivery on Sunday morning and oranges constantly roll out when you open it as they are tucked into nooks.)

No idea why this was actually created (clammy cocktail?), but it is my go-to cheat for a fish stock base/

Anyway, all this to say my so-called pantry had this couple of cans of clams awaiting bouillabaisse (I made that for the holidays and the recipe and story can be found here, at the bottom of my Boxing Day post), but that was more ambitious than I was feeling. The fish pasta was too carb heavy for the zippy new diet so I went to work on this. This spicy chowder has the charm of being largely made from what can be kept in the house, an advantage in these days of not wanting to run to the store.

I read a few recipes online and constructed mine from there. It goes without saying that this is a very flexible recipe which encourages its own specifics around the general idea and framework. Most of the ones I read called for bacon, but we are a pescatarian/no meat household so I went in a different direction. However, I would think you would chop it and add it to cook in the beginning with the garlic, onion and carrots. As I say above – use it to use up whatever leftovers are languishing in the fridge, bits of veg and fish.

In the before time I was a bit of a snob about using frozen or canned vegetables, but these days, especially for soup they are handy and work just fine. Of course if you are making this in the summer you’d use fresh corn and maybe even throw the cob in for good measure and to thicken the soup, perhaps even instead of the potato, but no complaints about this pantry version.

The sort of mainstay ingredients are as follows:

  • Large can of clams, drained
  • Bottle of clam juice
  • Large bottle of Clamato juice (my favorite cheat for fish stock!)
  • Large can of diced tomatoes
  • One large or two small bell peppers; I used red
  • Small onion
  • Garlic (lots! I think I used three or four large cloves)
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • New or creamer potatoes – help to thicken although I kept them to a minimum – four of the minature creamer ones, another recent discovery and I keep a bag of them in the house for various uses.
  • Jalapeño peppers (Pandemic pantry discovery for me – I keep a jar of them in the fridge – try them on grilled cheese sometime!) I used about 1/4 cup.
  • Green beans
  • Corn
  • Herbs – I had a bunch of flat leaf parsley and some fresh basil so I used that chopped. I also added two bay leaves and a bit of thyme. I used Maras red pepper (a whole post could be devoted to the discovery of this gentle, but strong red pepper as a seasoning!), but you could use red pepper flakes (I’d chop them a bit), chili pepper or whatever you prefer to make things spicy. I always like a bit of ground coriander. Salt to taste. I adjusted the seasoning throughout cooking in a more rigorous way than usual and I used a fine salt rather than the rough ground salt I prefer on many other things – no idea if that made a difference.
  • Tomato and anchovy paste (optional but I like to add it for depth)
  • Wine or vermouth, about a half a cup

So I was feeling a bit lazy and I used the Cuisinart to chop the onion, the garlic and the herbs. Not sure it was a good idea, but I decided to Cuisinart the red pepper as well. Of course this meant that it was very fine and it also brought out all the liquid which I had not anticipated and really I ended up deglazing the pan when I added it. It’s soup so in the end it doesn’t really matter, but the result was a finer, less chunky soup. I think fine either way although my usual go to is to hand chop.

Anyway, I softened the garlic, onions, celery and carrots first, along with the tomato and anchovy paste (first go of salt and the Maras pepper at this point, but I added more later), then added the potatoes (sliced pretty small), then bell peppers and then you can deglaze the pot with the wine or vermouth; I keep vermouth for cooking as a wine alternative. This assumes you are using frozen or canned corn and green beans – if fresh you would want to add them before deglazing.

Add the Clamato, the diced tomato, clams, clam juice, Jalapeño peppers (rough chopped), corn, beans, etc. and the herbs. Bring to a hard boil for a bit. Adjust seasoning. Simmer for no less than an hour, but the longer the better. Keep checking the seasoning throughout – I wanted it very spicy but didn’t want to kill us so it was a fine line. This is another recipe that is definitely better after a day in the fridge. I am going to make a variation on it today with shrimp and leftover flounder, with perhaps a few cheese tortellini to keep things interesting.

If I wasn’t on a diet I would serve this with corn bread or muffins – or even some crusty buttered baguette. Nevertheless, it was so great I can’t wait to make it again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s