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Author Notes: Right now, we're just--just--on the cusp of summer, and, raining and low-60s, its still nice to have a hot soup at night; regardless, I eat this all year round, nostalgic for the coast and sick of store bought stuff that is really just potato soup. If you're serving quite a few people, it can stretch--I serve this in my coffee mugs with some toasted slices of baguette. By all means grate some gruyere on the bread pieces before popping them in the broiler. Is this the most traditional chowdah? No. I happen to love using homemade guanciale in this soup for its piggyness, not the traditional salt pork and not the definitely-not-traditional bacon. But feel free to use any of the above (I'd sooner use salt pork).
Do not use canned clams!! They lack the texture of "real" clams (they are just stringy bits and utterly lacking structural integrity). You shouldn't have to guess whether you have a clam in your spoon or not. This is a pretty "peasant" dish in terms of technique; just picture yourself in Salem in The Scarlet Letter, and chop how you think they'd chop.
Serves 8-12 (depending on whether you go mugs or bowls)
- 4.5 cups russet potatoes, cut into small cubes
- 2 stalks celery, chopped roughly into about 1/4 inch half-rounds, precision not terribly important here
- 4 ounces guanciale (my preference), or salt pork, sliced.
- 1/2 a carrot, grated (optional)
- 1 medium vidalia onion, diced (again, not terrible if some pieces are a bit larger than others, we're going for taste)
- 16 ounces Clam Juice (2 bottles of Snow's--buy an extra to have handy)
- 1 pound freshly chopped clams (juice reserved).
- 2 cups Whole Milk
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1 sprig tarragon or parsley (or a combo), chopped for garnish
- salt and pepper, to taste
- pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
- In a large pot, over medium heat, render the guanciale until close to crispy (not crumbly--in the bacon analogy--let it keep its delicious integrity). Remove and put on a paper towel to drain some of the oil.
- In the fat, add the onion and celery (and, if using, the grated carrot), and sweat until the onion is translucent and the celery is cooked through but still retains crunch. If you need to add a dollop of butter, I wouldn't hate you.
- Add in the potatoes, and stir. Almost like the arborio in risotto, stir to get all the fat and frying flavors on the potatoes for a minute.
- Add the whole milk, bay leaf, and bottles of clam juice. This should definitely cover the potatoes, but, if not, that's why I always keep an extra bottle in the cupboard handy (as you should too)!
- Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down to simmer and let it go for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Taste & season with salt and pepper. If using the pinch of cayenne, put it in now--it won't do you dirty, and I like the kick as well as the added red particles floating around for color/aesthetics. Then, with a potato masher, mash the soup in the pot to your desired texture. Some people prefer a smoother texture and use a stick blender, but I like having a dose of some still whole potato dices in the soup, so I don't use the blender, but give a quick "peasant" mash of it.
- Add the cream, and the juice from the fresh chopped clams. Simmer for 5 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. It shouldn't be entirely creamy, but a broth-y soup "fortified" by milk/cream and potato starch.
- Turn the heat off and add the chopped clams to the pot.
- Let sit for 2 minutes. If serving immediately, then ladle into mugs or bowls, garnish with the guanciale slices and herbs. Always serve with some sort of bread, crostini, or even (the classic) oyster crackers. Otherwise, you can freeze it and keep it up to 6 months.