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Clam Chowder (Dairy-Free)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

At the clam festival last month we got to sample a variety of different clam chowders. The New England clam chowder is thick, rich, with a heavy dose of cream. The Manhattan clam chowder is tomato-based, with a thinner broth, and no cream. There are also several hybrids, using some variation of one or the other, or using both tomato and cream. My preference is New England clam chowder, since it seems the flavors blend better together. Once I started researching recipes for New England clam chowder, they varied from a quarter to the majority of the liquid in the chowder consisting of heavy cream. Using that much cream, even if I was a milk fiend, seemed a bit much. It also happens that around these parts we're lactose intolerant. My husband really wanted to try making some, but the thought of that much cream almost completely turned him off from it. So I started thinking about how I could recreate the same richness and creaminess of a New England clam chowder and avoid using dairy.

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As I began looking through different recipes and learning more about it, I found a curious website. It is a collection, amassed by UMass, of New England clam chowder recipes as they evolved through the years, from the more modern recipes to more interesting ones going back to the seventeen hundreds.

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If you peruse the recipes you can actually observe the evolution of the clam chowder, from a simple clam broth with some milk splashed in at the end cooked over hot coals, to what it has become today. Some of the more common threads involve bacon, clams and dairy. The earlier recipes used lard for the fat to cook the vegetables, with some of the later recipes using bacon fat for the same purpose.

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This recipe has no pork grease or dairy. But it tastes just as good as the real thing. Maybe even better. For the thick base, I decided to use a vichyssoise-style soup (a potato and leek puree soup). For this version of the clam chowder, I cooked the potatoes and leeks in the clam juice and then pureed them, giving the chowder a thick, creamy, filling consistency, without using the dairy. The end result is a thick, creamy broth, with almost no fat - since the clams are naturally fat-free. The chowder is nonetheless extremely filling, and you will not miss the dairy.

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This chowder needs no additional thickener as the starch from the potatoes is a natural thickener. Although the recipe has no dairy, if you prefer it a little creamier, you can easily stir in 1/2 cup of milk at the end. The thick texture of the chowder makes this a good meal year round, not just when clams are in season. Serve it with some oyster crackers and hot sauce. Enjoy!

Clam Chowder
(Serves 4)

You will need:
2 tbsp canola oil
2 leek whites, cleaned
1 yellow onion, peeled and diced
3-4 medium white potatoes, peeled and diced
2 cups clam juice, divided
1 cup water
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 bay leaf
1/8 tsp Worcestershire sauce
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup chopped canned clams, strained of juice (about 3 of 6.5 oz cans)
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
Hot sauce, such as Tabasco (optional)

Directions:

1. Dice one of the leeks. Heat canola oil in a stock pot. Add the diced leek and the onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the diced potatoes, 1 cup clam juice and 1 cup water. Stir in the wine. Cover, and bring just to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are soft, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat.
2. Strain the solids from the pot, reserving the liquids. Process the solids in a food processor, in batches if necessary, into a puree. Return the pureed vegetables, together with the reserved liquids into the pot. Add the second cup of clam juice. Stir to combine.
3. Bring the pot back to a simmer. Add the celery and the bay leaf. Chop the other leek, add the leek to the pot. Stir in the Worcestershire sauce and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and let simmer for about 10 minutes, until celery is tender. Stir in the chopped clams, bring back to a simmer and cook 4-5 minutes more. Stir in the parsley. Serve, with hot sauce and oyster crackers (optional).

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Jersey Summer

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Summer came and went. Ours seemed like a big blur of frenzy intermixed with occasional glimpses of tranquility.

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Though we haven't deliberately chosen Jersey - as in, oh let's live here of all places - rather we've kind of stumbled into it (our living situation was altogether rather random, going from NYC to Norway and then here), I'd say we've transplanted quite well (better perhaps than we did at 60º north).

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Following the when in Rome philosophy, this summer, rather than going to a beach off somewhere in exotic places, we thought, well, we have a beach. A whole shore of it. So to the Shore we went. Although I expected beach towns, shacks, and some great waves, one thing that didn't occur to me was the food. As in, buckets and buckets worth of delicious, fresh seafood.

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Take for instance, clam fest, taking place every year in Highlands NJ, about which we found out about by a complete accident while stopping for a snack there. It took place over an entire weekend in August. Needless to say, we of course went to it, and became so overwhelemed that we somehow forgot the shore that was more South, or the Sandy Hook that was right there, and came back for it the second day. Yes, just for the clams.

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I've had clams before, but not like this. If you remember the movie Forrest Gump, there was scene where Bubba was explaining how he would like to go into the shrimping business after the army, and was listing all the things you could do with shrimp (here is the scene), the clam thing is similar. You can barbecue 'em, boil 'em, broil 'em, bake 'em, sautee 'em.

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There's clam bake, clam chowder, clam soup, clam stew, fried clams, steamed clams, clams on the half-shell, grilled clams, clam cakes, stuffed clams, clam sandwich. That's about it.

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Soft-shell clams or "steamers" as they are often called are clams primarily used for steaming, and then eating by dipping them in clam broth to wash off any remaining grit and then dipping them in melted butter.  Their shell is made of calcium carbonate, which is very thin and brittle for a mollusk, and can be crushed with your fingers, hence the name soft-shell.

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These clams have a distinctive "long neck," a blackish protrusion, which is connected to the actual clam. The neck is covered with a black, inedible membrane. To eat the steamers, you remove the top half-shell, then peel off the the skin from the long neck. The neck is convenient to grab and pull the clam out of the bottom half shell, and then dip it in the broth and butter.

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You can use the shell to catch any running juices and then drink those up as well.

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The other common type is the hard clam, also known as littleneck clam, topneck or quahog (names vary depending on their sizes). These have a hard shell, and can be eaten raw on the half-shell.

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These can be used for steaming as well, especially for pasta-dishes, while stand-alone steamed clam dishes usually use the steamers. The hard clams are also great grilled.

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The larger quahogs, having tougher meat, are usually reserved for dishes like the clam chowder.  But if you're feeling clammed out, there are always other options. We are definitely going back next year for the clam festival, and also a lobster fest that apparently takes place every year on Bradley Beach.

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Profits from the clam fest went in part to helping rebuild the shore which was significantly damaged by Hurricane Sandy. But if you ask folks, I'd say we've bounced back pretty strong.

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See you next summer, Jersey shore.

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