Over the Christmas holiday I made what in hindsight feel like two pretty amateurish mistakes. The first was on Christmas Eve. Both Dave and I have family traditions of eating a shellfish dish for dinner. His family always does oyster stew. Mine mixes it up. We seem to be creating our own tradition of clam chowder, if two years in a row a tradition makes.
We had a delightful walk down to New Deal Fish Market Christmas Eve morning. It was hopping, with a line out the door. We couldn't decide was amazing thing to get, and then saw the clams. We also had salmon sushi and Alaskan King crab legs for an appetizer. Anyway, we decided to wing the chowder and it turned out great, except for one small, glaring problem: I naively salted it WITHOUT tasting it first, and while I didn't add very much salt, I completely spaced that the clams would release a lot of their own salt water. So, while it was technically edible, it was fortunate there was not too much and it wasn't our only food, or it really would have been overwhelming.
The second mistake was on Christmas morning. Dave's family traditionally has an egg casserole that his Mom makes the night ahead with sausage and cheese and bread. It is delightful and the perfect break between stockings and other presents. My family has always done English muffins, Dundee marmalade, eggs, fried potatoes and/or grits, and sausage or bacon. I decided to modify that meal a bit, because my kids don't usually have huge breakfast appetites. But, eggs, muffins with marmalade, and bacon were a must. So, I saved a lovely chunk of fresh bacon from the meat CSA. It was whole, not sliced, and I imagined it to be just like the bacon we'd slice off the huge slab that would hang in our mudroom, growing up. It was great bacon. So, I defrosted it and would lovingly look at it in the days before Christmas, sitting in the fridge. I could practically taste it. And then when I finally did taste it, I almost cried. Fresh (shockingly) means it isn't smoked. It was a huge disappointing chunk of very fatty pork belly. I tried to spice it up a bit, but even my loving, supportive, usually up-for-eating-anything husband determined it, for all intents and purposes, inedible.
I looked online the next day to figure out what to do with the remaining meat, and mostly what I found was people using the same CSA, discovering the same unfortunate surprise. Some people suggested smoking it on stove top smokers and others had some dish with lime they recommended. I haven't decided yet what to do. I'm clearly not going to buy a smoker. Maybe I'll cut off all the fat possible and make beans or something. Total bummer.
So, while the bacon is a flop, the chowder is actually worth talking about, minus the salt. A friend was telling me that you are supposed to roll the clams in cornmeal and then soak them in water, I suppose to make them open up and release grit. This would make them release the salt water, too, but I like the briny flavor so I leave it up to you, dear reader, to try the pre-soak method and give me a recipe.
Christmas Eve Clam Chowder
makes 4 side servings or 2 entree servings; total time about 15 minutes
2 pounds clams (we used cherrystones but have used littlenecks in the past)
1 TBSP butter
2 cloves garlic, minced (~1 teas.)
1 cup dry white wine
1 teas. pepper
1/4 teas. crushed red pepper
1 cup milk
optional spices added to taste: paprika, nutmeg, white pepper, ginger
Gently scrub clams in cool water with a brush. Discard any broken ones. If any are open, gently tap them against the counter and give them a minute. If they close, they're good to use; if they do not, discard them. (This works with mussels and oysters, too.)
In a large saute pan with a tightly fitting top, melt butter over medium heat and add garlic. Cook, stirring constantly, until garlic is fragrant, ~ 1 minute.
Add wine and clams, and put top on. Steam until clams open, checking every few minutes. This should take only a five or so minutes, but I've had it take as long as fifteen and they were delicious. Any that do not open a few minutes after the majority have, discard.
Remove all clams from pan and put in a bowl. Pick them up one at a time. Carefully drain liquid back into bowl and then remove meat by pulling it. Discard shell. When all clams have been cleaned out, chop the meat and put it and any accumulated liquid form bowl back into pan.
Add pepper, crushed red pepper, and milk (and any optional spices) and heat until the temp you like.
Serve with biscuits or rolls or warm bread.