Tracy Lee Karner

Clammin' for Chowdah in Rhode Island

Tracy Lee Karner
I’m actually clamming.

Wear your Wellies or old shoes, because it’s messy. It’s like making mud pies, with the benefit that you get to wear adult-y pride while you’re mucking around, because  you’re about the adult-y business of actually feeding the family.
It’s like playing Paleolithic Hunter-Gatherer. It’s living with an artisanal flair, close to nature, passionate about eating from a local food source (in this case, 2 miles away!)
If you’re a Rhode Island resident, you don’t need a special license to dig clams. If you’re not a citizen, get info about the “recreational shellfishing” permit, here. A 14-day tourist pass costs $11 (less than an appetizer at the raw bar).
It gives the thighs a great (somewhat ouch-inducing) workout, too.
Low-tide is clamming time. I checked the NOAA tide schedule before I headed out with my hand-held garden rake. I dug (here, there, by the rocks, beside the gulls) for a while (I had no idea what I was doing–it was my first time!) until I found a clam, 3-4 inches deep. Found another and another until I had half a dozen good ones (enough for a large pot of chowder) rinsed them off and carried them home.
Soaked them in cold water and scrubbed the shells, set them on ice overnight in the fridge. Made chowder the next day, this way:

  1. Saute a clove of sliced garlic in butter for a minute or two. Add a splash of dry vermouth or white wine (makes a lovely sizzle-y sound!), then add some water and the clams. Cover and steam until the clams open. This could take 5-15 minutes. Chowders (those over 3″) take longer to open than cherrystones (2-1/4 -to- 3″) which take longer than the littlenecks (about 2″ ). They’re all Quahogs, pronounced KOE-ugs. The name-distinction is about size, not species.
  2. Remove the clams from the broth, remove the meat from the clams, reserving the shells for wampum. Chop the clam meat into 1/4″ pieces. Strain the broth through a coffee filter or paper towel-lined fine-mesh sieve.
  3. Return the clams and strained broth to the pot and simmer, covered, until the meat is nicely tender (15 minutes or so).
  4. While that’s simmering, in a separate pan saute some finely chopped onion and a fair amount of diced potato in a dot of butter or pork fat, seasoning with a little Karner all-purpose gourmet seasoning. (That’s Ken’s special blend, or use Lawry’s, or whatever your favorite happens to be). I like to brown a few bits of onion, when I can pull off that trick without scorching the whole kaboodle. Tend the pan carefully.
  5. Add the sauteed vegetables to the chowder pot and a little extra water if necessary (to cover). Cook, covered, until the potatoes & onions are tender (ten minutes should do it). Then stir in as much milk/cream as you like, seasoning with a pinch of thyme, and the right amount of pepper to suit your taste (clams are salty–I don’t add any). Thicken with a smidge of roux, or don’t (I did not).

You will have a lovely, lovely chowder.

Tracy Lee Karner
New England Clam Chowder, with milk. (Rhode Island Chowder is clear, Manhattan has tomatoes).

Now, if I only knew how to make wampum out the shells, I could pay my tuition at Harvard with them. Oh–wait, that was a couple hundred years ago. Gathering my dinner made me momentarily forgot that I’m living in the era when Harvard only accepts US currency.
This lovely specimen would make valuable wampum, because of the amount of precious purple:
Tracy Lee Karner
Any authentic, old wampum strings or belts you might find are the property of the Iroquois Confederation. By 1989 law, anyone possessing them is required to return those sacred artifacts to the rightful owners.

So what’s on the menu at your house? 

14 thoughts on “Clammin' for Chowdah in Rhode Island”

    1. inspired!
      btw last night the chef whipped up the most fabulous fish dish I’ve ever tasted, cioppino (with halibut, shrimp and calamari). Until last night my “best” memory of fish was held by the Black Pearl in Newport, where in late spring 2005 they served me the most exquisite sea bass, while Martha Stewart dined near the fire place (not 30 feet from us, the whole evening long). All the other patrons pretended not to notice her (classy), and she pretended not to notice that anyone would be interested in noticing her (regal!). We all had a lovely evening. But last night’s stew topped it.

    1. Hi Marylin–isn’t that a wonderful word? I learned it from a 6-year-old who dined at our table one evening with her parents. She was immaculately well-behaved. We served a salad with a few sprinkles of curly endive (children don’t usually like bitter food!). She had been taught that she had to at least take one bite before she decided she didn’t like something. She chewed thoughtfully. When asked whether she liked the salad, she said, with sweet effort to be polite, “It’s ….. okay, I suppose. I think it’s very adult-y.”

  1. Oh my mouth is watering! I love clam chowdah. And on the menu at my house….cereal for me, duck and pea food for Ted. But we’d like for you to fly in and prepare the RI style chowdah, please!

    1. Thanks for checking in… and I’m glad you appreciated the humor. I do try to be upbeat. I posted this a couple of days ago, and since then we’ve had some major trauma happening–not in our own home, but a tragedy came upon a dear close friends’ house. Your little comment called me back to this fun moment, which is like calling me forward into hope and joy. Time… it’s mysterious.
      I’ll facebook email you the details–I know you’ll want to pray for our friends.

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