Carolina Clam Chowder Down-East Style

photo by Leigh Beisch

photo by Leigh Beisch

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As the weather turns cooler and we start craving a bowl of hearty soup, cookbook author, cooking teacher and culinary historian Nancie McDermott of Chapel Hill (English ’73) offers this recipe for “Carolina Clam Chowder Down East Style.” It’s from her new cookbook, Southern Soups & Stews: More Than 75 Recipes from Burgoo and Gumbo to Etouffée and Fricassee. (Chronicle Books, September 2015).

Once you’ve passed through North Carolina’s capital city of Raleigh en route to the coast, you find yourself in the vast region known as “Down East.” The red clay soil gets sandy, the pine trees grow taller, and the highways flatten out. A few hours takes you to the coast­line, which forms an undulating chain of slender islands, curving and bending to enclose the Pamlico Sound. The sound and Inland Waterway it feeds teem with boats, while the Atlantic Ocean churns with marine life, pelicans, swans and wild geese. People who live in communities on or near the Outer Banks call themselves “bankers,” and share a love and respect for nature in their landscape, which is unlike any other place on Earth. Sea­food restaurants abound, with fancy versions of clam chowder among their offerings, but none beats this homespun version, sans cream, sans razzmatazz. Nothing to it — “nothing” being a few worthy items: chewy, flavor-packed clams; potatoes; onions; and a handful of bacon. Minutes of minor effort, and you’ve created a simple feast. Saltine crackers go nicely with this, though Skillet Cornbread would fit right in.

Serves 4 to 6 

36 to 48 small clams, such as little­necks, or 24 large clams, enough to yield about 1 cup of clam meat

6 ounces thick smoky bacon, finely chopped

1 cup finely chopped onion

1½ cups peeled chopped red or white potatoes

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1. Rinse the clams well and place them in a stockpot with about 2 cups water. Cover and bring them to a rolling boil. Cook just until the clams open, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove them from the heat, transfer the clams to a plate or bowl, discarding any that do not open, and let them cool, reserving all the cooking liquid.

2. When the shells are cool enough to handle, remove the clam meat and reserve. (If you used larger clams, chop the clam meat coarsely so that it’s easy to eat with a spoon.) Strain the liquid, discard­ing the shells, and reserve it alongside the clams.

3. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, cook the bacon until it is nicely browned and aromatic, about 3 minutes. Scoop out the bacon and set it aside, reserving the grease in the pan.

4. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until fragrant and shiny, but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the potatoes, bacon, salt, pepper, and reserved clam cooking liquid, along with 2½ cups water. Simmer over medium-high heat for about 20 min­utes, or until the potatoes are tender. Add the clams back into the pot and cook just enough to heat them through, about 1 minute more. Serve the chowder hot or warm.

Read Nancie McDermott’s blog.

Nancie McDermott’s new cookbook is featured in The News & Observer.

Read more in The Indy Week about Nancie McDermott’s new book and find a recipe for her friend Sheri Castle’s Watauga County Chicken Stew with Fluffy Dumplings. (Castle is also featured in our magazine.)

Want another recipe? Check out this dish: Jamaican rice and peas.