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If you're going to use fresh clams, see the note on preparing them. Steam them over 1 cup of water on high heat until they open. Remove the clams from the steamer as they open, and set them aside to cool. Discard any stubborn ones that don't open. Strain the liquid into a bowl and keep it handy.
If you're using salt pork, rather than bacon, see the note on that too.
In a frying pan, melt 2 Tbsp. of the butter over medium heat. When it has melted, add the breadcrumbs and cook, stirring, until golden brown. Remove from the heat and set aside.
In a large, heavy-bottomed pan or soup pot, over medium heat, cook the salt pork (or bacon) until it renders its fat, and has browned slightly, about 5–10 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove the salt pork to paper towels to drain.
Add another tablespoon of butter to the pork drippings. When it melts, add the onion, celery and thyme, and sauté until the onion is soft and translucent, about 3–4 minutes.
Add the potatoes and stir well. Add enough water to the reserved clam liquor to make 3 cups and add this to the pot. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 15–20 minutes. With the back of a fork, or with a stick-blender, crush some of the potatoes, but not all, to thicken the soup a bit.
Add the milk and the cream, increase the heat to medium, and add the clams and the reserved salt pork or bacon, heating them through. Season to taste with the salt and pepper.
Ladle the hot chowder into bowls and garnish with a sprinkling of the sautéed buttered breadcrumbs.