Have you ever walked the beach at low tide and picked up a very large, triangle-shaped clamshell — 4 inches or more across? The hard shells belong to the Atlantic surf clam (Spisula solidissima), a marine bivalve mollusk that abounds in coastal Maine and the Northeast region. They are primarily harvested in New England. These shellfish, also known as “hen” or “surf” clams, can grow to 8 inches or more, often weighing more than 2 pounds. They are one of the largest clams that we eat.
The Atlantic surf clam is largely harvested by dredging in the Nantucket Shoals, where annual landings can reach 3 million pounds. Rarely sold as a live product to consumers, they are used mainly for processed products such as clam juice, clam strips, minced clams and bait.
At low-drain tides, we are fortunate to be able to dig these large bivalves here in Crockett Cove. In less than an hour, I can dig over a bushel of hen clams, more than 40 pounds. Often called “chowdah” clams, the process of preparing them — shucking, cleaning, removing the bellies and grinding the meat — is quite laborious, but yields a very fresh and tasty clam chowder.
Hen clams are the variety most often used in a good, old-time Maine chowder. Here at Rabbit Hill, 2 pounds of hen clams (without the shell), with the bellies removed and put through a meat grinder on a coarse blade, will yield about 20 ounces of chopped clams.
The following recipe for Maine Clam Chowder is a traditional one and features the use of the glorious and abundant surf clam, widely available as a canned product in your local supermarket. This chowder is nice and thick and creamy with lots of clam flavor, perfectly textured potatoes and pretty pink flecks of clams.
To make ideal chowder, you need to follow a few simple steps, as texture, taste and mouth feel are equally important. Finely chop the onions, and evenly cube the potatoes. A good chowder is never thickened with flour or cornstarch, only with potatoes, which makes it a nice meal for my gluten-free friends. I often use two varieties of potatoes, both a masher and a baker: one that softens as it cooks and thickens the broth, and one that stays cubed for the final chowder.
Sautéing the onions in a combination of butter and bacon fat lends richness to the broth. Cooking the cubed potatoes in clam juice and whole bay leaves locks in a nice, deep clam flavor. Instead of canned milk, I favor a mixture of rich milk (raw milk with cream on the top) and cream, added to the soup with the clams. When I’m feeling extravagant, I use just straight cream. To finish, I puree a few cups in the blender to achieve the desired consistency and mouth feel, and lightly season the chowder with sea salt and fresh pepper.
Maine Clam Chowder’s flavor only improves with age and it tastes best four or five days later. For optimum enjoyment, serve this hearty chowder in heated soup cups or bowls with lots of chowder crackers for lunch or dinner. Popovers go nicely with chowder, too, and Maine applesauce for dessert.
Cheryl Wixson lives and cooks in Stonington. She welcomes food-related questions and comments at [email protected]
Maine Clam Chowder
Makes 8 servings
1¼ cup chopped clams (3-6.5 oz. cans)
2 Tbsps. bacon fat
2 Tbsps. butter
1¼ cup chopped onion
2 cups cubed and peeled potatoes (about 2 medium)
1 cup clam juice
3 cups rich milk (combination of milk and cream)
2 teaspoons chopped, fresh thyme or scant ½ tsp. dried thyme
2 bay leaves
¼ tsp. freshly ground pepper
In a heavy soup pot over medium heat, melt the bacon fat and butter. Add the chopped onion and sauté until transparent. Add the cubed potatoes, bay leaves and clam juice, simmer, covered, until the potatoes are just fork tender. Stir in the clams and season to taste with the thyme. Add the milk and cream. Bring just to a simmer and season to taste with sea salt and fresh pepper. If desired, puree about 2 cups of soup in the blender to thicken. For best flavor, allow chowder to set overnight (in refrigerator) and reheat gently.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 326 calories, 21 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 19 grams fat, 140 mg. sodium, 1 gram fiber.