Mess with New England Clam Chowder at your peril
“This is the North Shore,” warns Matt O’Neil, chef/owner of The Blue Ox in Lynn. “Everybody has an opinion.”
Tinkering with the classic is dicey at every turn—after all, there is a reason the combination of clams, milk or cream, potatoes, and onions has stood the test of time.
“It’s an expression of who we are as New Englanders,” says O’Neil, a Swampscott native whose second restaurant, Ledger in Salem, will explore the cuisine of the colonists through the lens of today’s palates. “We’re hardy people who are honest, true and simple, and that’s really what a chowder is.”
Because chowder is so very personal, it is challenging for area chefs to approach. Staying perfectly true, to the classic combination doesn’t leave much room for flair, but stray too far from the norm and blowback will surely ensue.
“A chef’s creativity is limited by the dish’s history,” O’Neil says. “You can’t change history, but you can rewrite it a little.”
Here we present four North Shore chefs who are rewriting history a little…or a lot. Our opinion? All are delicious.
Elm Square Oyster Co., Andover
Michael Sherman is a brave man. While he is full of respect for a classic, creamy chowder, the Merrimac native feels like summertime calls for something lighter, fresher…and—dare we say it—with tomatoes.
“For summertime, there is nothing better than a fresh tomato and a salty clam,” Sherman says. “Think of a really ripe tomato in the middle of summer. Clams really enjoy sweetness and tomatoes really enjoy saltiness. If you put them both together, it’s a perfect match.”
Urban legend says the opposite; a claim still circulating says Massachusetts regulations prohibit tomatoes in clam chowder (we couldn’t find any such law), yet Sherman doubles down as a scofflaw, layering raw cherry tomatoes with marinated ones and even some dehydrated tomato chips for his Manhattan Clam Chowder.
“It’s showcasing the clam and the tomato as well,” he says. “The tomato broth is extremely clammy.” Texture is the key for the clams themselves, he says. “Clams hold up in a chowder. I think that’s why people like them so much.”
Anthony Caturano, chef/owner of Tonno, hasn’t broken any chowder laws that we know of, but his super-indulgent version, which includes mashed potatoes and fried clams, isn’t for the faint of heart.
“It’s a little jacked up,” admits Caturano, who brought the seasonal dish of creamy goodness up to Gloucester from Prezza, his lauded restaurant in Boston’s North End. The soup starts with a clam broth, with whole littleneck clams steamed open in the broth, thickened with milk and cream, poured over pancetta mashed potatoes, and then topped with fried Ipswich clams.
“For contrast, you have the crispy fried clams, soft mashed potatoes, and the steamed clams,” the chef says. “When you eat it, it all goes together.”
Chowder fans seeking subtlety will enjoy the Pork + Clam Chowder at Brine, a velvety puree of potatoes cooked in a mixture of clam juice and classic flavorings (thyme, bacon, celery, onion, etc.), and then strained and blended with cream as a thickener and topped with pork belly and crispy potato chips.
Like most chefs looking for true clam flavor, Paul Callahan eschews gallons of preshucked clams, starting instead with wild count necks in the shell. “There is nothing like the texture and flavor of them,” Callahan says. “The flavor is so pure.”
It’s not just the clams that make this dish special; preparation takes days and days, including the house-cured pork belly, which is cooked overnight in Miller High Life and onions and then pressed over a second night with an ice-filled pan to give it a dense, intense porkiness. Even the fingerling potatoes, which are fried as a crispy topping to the soup, get an overnight treatment, soaking in vinegar and water.
“It’s familiar like clam chowder, but it eats more like a refined soup,” Callahan says. “People can see the care that goes into it.”
The Blue Ox, Lynn
Patrons can have it both ways at The Blue Ox. The base is all classic chowder, more milky than creamy and given a subtle sweet, smoky upgrade with applewood-smoked bacon. A small percentage of customers who order chef Matt O’Neil’s popular chowder want to stop there—but most opt for the kick of a few dashes of Tabasco added at the finish.
“It’s up the middle with a twist,” says O’Neil. “The Tabasco breaks up the heaviness and spices it up a bit.” While the dish has been on the menu since The Blue Ox opened eight years ago, O’Neil says subtle changes have improved it over the years, without departing from the classic preparation too much. “New England has so many traditions. You don’t want to change too much what has stood the test of time.
Sometimes you just want a classic dish of New England clam chowder. Here are three North Shore restaurants that follow recipes handed down over generations to create creamy, clammy perfection.
Three Cod Tavern Marblehead
The closely guarded secret recipe at Three Cod has never been written down; it passed from cook to cook at the storied Marblehead watering hole Maddie’s Sail Loft for 60 or 70 years before the torch was passed. Rich and gluten-free, this chowder is perfectly balanced—not too thick and not too thin—with chunks of clam that are bigger than the chunks of potato and a slight tanginess, perhaps from the mixture of milk and light cream that forms the soup’s base.
141 Pleasant St., Marblehead, 781-639-3COD
Legal Sea Foods Peabody
Every newly inaugurated president since Ronald Reagan (in 1981) has celebrated with a cup of Legal’s New England clam chowder. A mixture of light cream and fish stock thickened with a touch of flour, it is richly balanced and thick, with littleneck clams in every bite.
210 Andover St., Peabody, 978-532-4500
The Village Restaurant Essex
For more than 60 years,locals and travelers from afar have stopped in at this cozy family-owned restaurant to enjoy Essex clams dug from flats just across the street. The milky broth in this chowder—a family recipe handed down for generations—virtually sings with sweet, fresh clam goodness.
55 Main St., Essex, 978-768-6400
Blue Oc Clam Chowder
Yield: About 2 gallons
By Chef Matt O’Neill
> 5 onions, diced small
> 4 Idaho potatoes, peeled and diced
> 2 pounds Applewood smoked bacon, diced
> 1/4 bunch thyme
> 3 bay leaves
> 1 pound butter, unsalted
> 1 pound all-purpose flour
> 1/2 clove nutmeg, grated
> 2 quarts fresh shucked clams (whole or chopped)
> 1 quart clam juice
> Kosher salt
> 1 quart or more whole milk
> 1 quart or more heavy cream
> Tabasco sauce
> Crispy diced bacon
> Thinly sliced chives
> Oyster crackers
1. Render out the bacon in a high-sided sauté pan or shallow braising pan until the bacon is crispy.
2. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon to paper towels. Add onions to the bacon fat and sweat onions over low heat until translucent. Heavily salt the onions at this point.
3. In another pot make the roux, stirring the flour into the melted butter with a wooden spoon until the roux is smooth and blonde in color. About five minutes.
4. Cook the diced potatoes in the clam juice until still firm but cooked almost all the way through. Strain the clam juice into the onion mixture, reserving the potatoes. Grate in the nutmeg using a Microplane grater if available. Next whisk the roux into the clam juice and onion mixture.
5. Add in the clams, 90 percent of the crispy bacon, and the potatoes, and fold all together until well incorporated. Season with black pepper and more salt at this point.
Finally, for every half gallon of the soup base 6. add one quart of milk and one quart of cream and bring to a simmer in a heavy sauce pan over low heat stirring with a wooden spoon (about 30 minutes). Season with salt and pepper as needed. Plate up the chowder and top with the remaining bacon, a few dashes of Tabasco sauce, chives, and oyster crackers.
Tonno Clam Chowder
By Chef Anthony Caturano
> 6 Cherrystone clams
> 1.5 yellow onions, chopped
> 1 celery stalk, chopped
> 1/4 tsp. fresh thyme
> 1/4 tsp. fresh rosemary
> 2 tbsp. olive oil
> 1 quart chicken stock
1. Sauté onions, celery, and herbs in olive oil. Add clams.
2. Add chicken stock and bring to a boil. Simmer on low heat 20-30 minutes.
3.Strain and put aside. Reserve Cherrystone shells for garnish.
> 2-3 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and quartered
> 1/2 yellow onion, chopped
> 1 celery stalk, chopped
> 1 leek, chopped
> 8 oz. bacon, chopped
> 2 tbsp. olive oil
> Clam broth from previous recipe
> 1 quart heavy cream
1. Sauté bacon, add potatoes, celery, onion, leeks in olive oil. Sauté until onion is translucent.
2. Add clam broth, bring to boil. Add heavy cream. Simmer 25-30 minutes. Puree and strain. Salt and Pepper to taste.
For Garnish: 12 fryer clams
1. Dip clams in buttermilk followed by a 50-50 mix of semolina and flour.
2. Fry and serve two in an empty Cherrystone shell on top of mashed potatoes.
> 3-4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes
> 2 oz. chopped and rendered pancetta
> 12 – 16 Littleneck clams
1. Cook potatoes and mash with pancetta.
2. Put one scoop into middle of each bowl.
3. Place littlenecks in chowder to steam open, then place two in each bowl.
4. Add chowder to each bowl.