Rhode Island Clam Chowder has no cream!
If you’ve been to South County Rhode Island (pronounced by natives as “Rah-Dye-Lan”), I sure hope you didn’t miss a bowl of Rhode Island Clam Chowder and a paper sack of clam fritters fresh from the hot oil. They’re as important a cultural mainstay as the traditional Rhode Island greeting, “Hey, Hawaii-ya?” The reply to this, by the way, is “Fine, thank you. How-ah-YOU?”
The little “Ocean State” is loaded with lovable quirks, like the accent that pronounces “R” like “Ah” (my name in R.I. is “Ah. B.”) but also adds an “R” to words ending in “A” like “vodker” for the liquor and “Elser” for my step-daughter, Elsa. RI has an array of great foods and food traditions (Native American, Italian, Irish, Yankee, Portuguese), friendly people, beautiful scenery, unprecedented corruption and, of course, the Atlantic Ocean. As soon as Min and I board the Southwest flight from Nashville we start talking like Peter Griffin and usually “do noght stawp” until we board the flight home. Now let’s tawk about the chowdah. Made simply and with care, it’s wicked awesome.
Chowder is typically a soup with milk or cream, and can be made with clams, other seafood, or corn. New England Clam Chowder is thick and creamy, Manhattan Clam Chowder is red with tomato, and Rhode Island Clam Chowder is clear — no dairy. Rhode Island includes a Portuguese culture that arrived the 19th century to fish for cod and thankfully they brought their linguica sausage with them which often appears in Rhode Island chowder (like the one served at Legal Seafood restaurants). That’s real Yankee fusion for ya.
So, our RI-style family chowder is made with lots of chopped clams and clam juice, onion, celery, and potatoes, but no dairy. As my weight-conscious mother often asked rhetorically, “Who needs all that cream?” Without the dairy and not too many potatoes the briny clams take centerstage. My mother was adamant about using plenty of clams, too, and was quickly irritated when a relative or clam shack got chintzy on clams and heavy on potatoes. “Don’t skimp on the clams!,” Mom always said.
Some folks start their RI chowder with chopped bacon. I make things easier by cooking the onions in a scoop of bacon grease from the jar in the fridge. I like the unctuousness of the bacon grease but don’t want to be distracted by chewy bacon bits. But, it’s up to the chowder-maker. As for the potatoes, red (waxy) potatoes are the tradition because they hold together, but we’ve been swapping to Russets which break up in the chowder and create a creamy feel, albeit less “clear.”
This chowder looks simple, and it is, but it’s surely comforting and delicious thanks to a balance of good ingredients. Despite the simplicity of a good chowder it’s not hard to find a plenty of lousy restaurant chowders killed with cream and potatoes, light on the clams. At home, fresh or frozen clams are preferable to the canned variety. Even here in Nashville we can sometimes find fresh clams in the seafood section. And one last vital tip: be sure the chowder crackers are fresh. Stale crackers kill the whole deal.
R.B.’s Rhode Island Clam Chowder
1 medium onion, chopped
Spoonful of bacon grease or 2 tablespoons oil
2 ribs celery, chopped
4 medium red potatoes or 2 large Russet (baking) potatoes, peeled
1 bottle (about 12 ounces) clam juice
2 pints chopped clams and their juice
In a medium soup pot saute the onion in the grease or oil over medium heat until just tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the celery and cook until the vegetables are tender. Add the potatoes and clam juice. Add enough water to cover and bring to a boil. Simmer until the potatoes are tender. Just before serving add the clams and heat the chowder through gently. Add additional water, if it seems too thick. Makes about 6 servings.