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I come from a long line of New Englanders and Nutmeggers who spent their days fishing for shad in the Connecticut River or clamming and oystering on the Long Island Sound. My mother fondly remembers large pots of oyster stew and clam chowder simmering on her parents' stove. My aunt remembers the same stews and chowders but she doesn't have the same fondness for the oyster stew as she does for my grandfather's clam chowder.
For years, my mother and aunt have scoured tag sales and flea markets for old cookbooks with the hope that they might find a recipe for a clear broth clam chowder like the one their father used – not that he used a recipe. When pressed, my mother says that he just put "a little bit of this" and "a little bit of that" into a pot. She does note, however, that he wasn't a fancy cook, and so when she would find recipes calling for things like bacon, salt pork, or herbs beyond the bare basics she quickly discarded them.
We found a version of this recipe in an old paperback cookbook published by a local church in the 1940s, and after giving it an eyeball test, decided to give it a try. The clam chowder now gets made for summer picnics and cooler summer nights. It cooks up quickly with very common ingredients and can be made with either homemade or bottled clam broth with equally delicious results. We rarely have leftovers.
1 cup butter
½ cup freshly chopped clams (if you love clams you can always add more)
6 cups of diluted clam broth
2 tablespoons chopped onions
1 ½ tablespoons salt
½ tablespoon black pepper
4 bay leaves
4 cups cubed potatoes
In a large pot, melt the butter and add the chopped onions. Sautée the onions until they become opaque. Add the clam broth, clams, clam juice, salt, pepper, and bay leaves, and bring to a boil. Add the potatoes and cook until tender.
Wash 8 pounds of large cherrystone clams (about 20) one at a time under running water, scrubbing off any sand with your fingers. If a clam is slightly open and does not close when tapped on a hard surface, discard it. Try to pry open any clam that feels very heavy. If it's full of sand, discard it.
Put 2 cups of water in large pot or Dutch oven, cover it, and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the clams and cook, covered for five minutes. Remove the lid, stir, and as the clams pop open completely, transfer them with tongs to a large bowl. Discard any clams that have not opened after 20 minutes.
When the clams are cool enough to handle, remove each clam from its shell over a bowl. Gently squeeze each clam over the bowl to capture as much of the broth as possible. Transfer the meat to a small bowl and discard the shells.
Strain the broth from the bowl and the pot through a fine sieve. Dilute the broth with water (3 to 5 cups) until it is pleasantly briny and not overly salty. The meat and broth can be refrigerated separately for up to 1 day before using.
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