For this brothy, light chowder I use pancetta so the briny flavor of the clams really shines through, but feel free to use smoky bacon if you prefer (or even skip it altogether and sauté the vegetables in butter). Without any added flour this soup thickens slightly from the starch released by simmering potatoes in clam broth and cream, and is even better when made a day or two in advance—just stir in some extra fresh herbs to brighten it after reheating.
First, cook the clams:
CLAMS AND CLAM BROTH
2 onions, sliced 2 bay leaves
1 carrot, chopped
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
48 littleneck clams, scrubbed well with a clean brush
(I keep one at my sink that never touches soap but cleans things like clam shells, dirty carrots or potatoes and brushes off sandy mushrooms—it’s a lifesaver)
1 lemon, halved 2 cups white wine
2 cups water
Add the first 4 ingredients to a large stockpot and layer clams on the top of the aromatics, squeeze in the juice of the lemon halves and tuck them into the mix, then pour in the liquid. Cover and bring the liquid to a boil, then lift the lid and check to see if the clams are opening. Using tongs, remove the clams as soon as they open, reserving them in a large bowl. (Since you will be reheating the clams, make sure to remove them as soon as they begin to open so as not to overcook them later; if you just want to eat these clams straight from the pot, or toss them with hot linguine, let them cook a touch longer before removing them from the heat.)
Once all the clams have opened, simmer the liquid in the stockpot an additional 5–10 minutes while the clams cool enough to handle. Pull the clam meat from the shells, reserving 12 of them in their shells for garnish, and set aside. Strain the liquid through a fine sieve lined with a coffee filter to remove any sand, then reserve, chilling everything in the fridge if not using straightaway.
Clams and broth can be cooked up to 1 day ahead.
4 ounces pancetta, minced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 bulb fennel, white parts only, minced (reserve a few fronds for garnish)
1 cup minced white onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 leek, white part only, well-cleaned and minced
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 pound yellow fingerling potatoes, sliced into ¼-inch coins
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2½ cups reserved clam broth
1½ cups heavy cream
36 cooked littlenecks, shelled and coarsely chopped 12 cooked littlenecks in the shell, reserved for garnish
2 tablespoons minced chives
In a heavy saucepan or Dutch oven heat the pancetta without additional oil until it has released its fat and is beginning to crisp, then add the butter, fennel, onion, garlic, leek, 1 tablespoon thyme leaves and the potatoes. Stir to combine, season with salt and pepper and sauté over medium heat, stirring often to prevent too much browning, until the onion is tender and translucent, about 5–8 minutes.
Add the clam broth and the cream, bring to a simmer, reduce heat to very low and cook until the potatoes are tender and the liquid has thickened slightly, about 20 minutes. Halfway through the 20 minutes add the chopped clams. Be sure NOT to let the chowder boil or it will curdle!
Stir in the reserved whole clams, 1 tablespoon of the chives and all the remaining thyme leaves. Serve each person a portion of chowder in a shallow bowl garnished with 3 whole clams and the remaining chives and some chopped fennel fronds. Be sure to serve with plenty of cracked black pepper at the table, and loaves of crusty bread for dipping.
Sarah Blackburn is a home cook, recipe developer, vegetable gardener and managing editor of Edible Boston. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org