A few years back, while vacationing along the Oregon Coast, we spent some time in Florence, Oregon – staying at the Driftwood Shores. This delightful property has to be one of the finest “casual” resorts on the Oregon coast. It is very nice without being overly pretentious. Every room has a full kitchen (and I do mean full – everything from a full size refrigerator to an oven, with all the dishes, pots, pans – everything you need to turn your hotel accommodations into a functioning, comfortable “home away from home”). If that isn’t reason enough, every room has breathtaking ocean views. All the rooms have either a patio or balcony and look out over the Pacific Ocean.
During the summer, early morning or early evening hours provide the best times to watch the Gray Whales from the comfort of your balcony. You are only steps away from easy access to the beach. What a beach – it is amazing – ten miles of beautiful soft sand. Hubby, Kiddo and I enjoyed two perfect days as guests of the Driftwood shores – able to relax, slow down and soak in all the wonderful flavors of this quaint little coastal hamlet. For those of you into sand dune adventures, Florence is the place to be.
The Surfside Restaurant and Lounge on the property offers an array of scrupulous foods – everything from Pancakes with Marionberries to the most flavorful Corned Beef Hash. Lunch can be as casual as a half-pound burger or as dreamy as Butternut Squash Ravioli served in a browned butter hazelnut sauce. And dinner – don’t get me started on dinner! Everything from a Blue Cheese stuffed Pork Chop to Filet Mignon in a Raspberry Merlot Reduction Sauce. Naturally, as expected from coastal dining establishment of this caliber, the Chef creates wonderful dishes made with the freshest bounty from the ocean. Local fresh salmon in a maple glaze, Seared Sea Scallops with Wild Mushrooms and Pan Fried Pacific Oysters just to name a few. Surfside is most famous for their take on Clam Chowder – winning awards for the last five years running. They call it their Classic Clam Chowder – but I’m here to tell you it is anything but the usual Clam Chowder. According to the menu, their chowder is made with Smokey Bacon, Chopped Clams and Yukon Potatoes. So modest a description for a chowder that is out of this world delicious.
I’m not going to claim that MY chowder is the BEST or that it is the RIGHT way to make AUTHENTIC clam chowder. In my opinion, the best of any recipe is what you think tastes the best. Right? If what you are making turns into creamy clam chowder that you and your family enjoy, then whatever method used, combination of ingredients and so forth is the right way to do things. As for AUTHENTIC – well chowder was first introduced aboard sea-going ships off the coast of New England – not sure how tasty Authentic chowder would be by today’s standards. After all, an authentic dish does not necessarily equate to delicious. To make clam chowder, the basic ingredients are similar in just about every recipe – clams; clam juice, pork, potatoes, celery and an onion. Some recipes use mashed potato as a thickening agent. Others use flour to create a roux with the pork renderings. (Just remember; a roux will need to cook on low for about 6-8 minutes. This will remove the flour-y flavor that turns so many people away from a roux in the first place). The first ship-board chowders did not contain cream, milk or butter as these ingredients were not readily available aboard ships. Thank goodness, we have those ingredients at our disposal today.
Let’s start with the smokey bacon – we aren’t talking about the strips of stuff fried up for breakfast in the morning. Oh no – the bacon used for out of this world smokey chowder comes from a slap of smoke cured bacon, cut into nice chunks. First, remove rind, then cut into chunks and fry up your hunks of bacon in a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Save the renderings, you will need it for the next step – cooking the celery and onions in the bacon grease will boost the awesome smokey flavor throughout the chowder. (Just a side note here, if you cannot get bacon in its original “slab” form, no need to panic – thick cut bacon will do just fine).
There really isn’t a whole lot to say about celery, other than use fresh, crisp celery and not that limp stalk hiding in the back of the vegetable bin. Personally, I like to buy mine in bags marked “celery hearts”, and I haven’t a clue why – just a preference.
Oh to the onion. Again, this is a personal choice – for Chowder either a yellow or white onion will be fine. Nearly 90% of the onions grown in America are Yellow Onions – making them the most widely used and readily available onion in the country. As for the flavor of Yellow Onions, they are assertive when raw, becoming deeply sweet when cooked. Since we are cooking ours; keep their deeply sweet flavor in mind. As for the White Onion, these are milder than their Yellow counterparts, making them a great onion for eating raw. They are also milder – so less of an onion punch in whatever application. Personally, I like the Yellow variety – but then I like my ingredients to stand out on their own when sampled and not disappear into a melding pot of flavors. Compliment one another – by all means. Compete for attention, no thank you. Which is why a Yellow Onion is my pick – a stronger onion, such as a red would be too demanding, while a white would be a wallflower. Again, that’s just my opinion.
Finally let’s talk about potatoes. The two most common types of potatoes used are the Russet and the Yukon. There are a few recipes that call for red potatoes, with the skin still attached. That would be fine for added color, but if coloring isn’t a consideration, then flavor and texture are important factors when selecting the potato that is right for you. Russet potatoes are of the starchy variety, great for baking, roasting or mashing as they are lighter and fluffier than the waxy variety. Russets will not necessarily do well in soups, chowders or stews when you are looking for a potato that will hold its shape. Waxy potatoes such as Red Bliss or New Potatoes (a potato that has been harvested young, before the sugars have had a chance to convert to starch) have a low starch content and are often characterized by a creamy, firm and moist flesh. The low-starch potato will hold its shape well after cooking and are often the best for things such as potato salad. Along comes the Yukon Gold – considered an all-purpose potato. The beauty of an all-purpose potato is that you can mash, bake, roast, fry or stew these potatoes. The Yukon Gold is a variety of the yellow potato and are often interchangeable in recipes. If your recipe calls for Yukon Gold and there are none in the produce section of your market, a yellow potato will do just fine.
So why, you must be wondering, aren’t we talking about the clams for Clam Chowder? Simple, my recipe does not use fresh clams. While I am sure the best clam chowders use only the finest, fresh ingredients, I’m just not into digging for clams. I don’t want to pry open the shells or deal with steaming, baking, smoking or anything else to get the clams ready for the chowder. If those chores strike your fancy, my hat is off to you! Go for it. If you are like me, and all the work needed for a good chowder WITHOUT dealing with fresh clams is enough for you, that’s just fine.
Smokey Bacon Clam Chowder
1/4 lb Slab Bacon, rind removed or 1/2 lb Hickory Bacon
4 celery stalks, chopped
1/2 yellow onion, finely chopped
6 Yukon Gold Potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 Cup All-Purpose Flour
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/8 teaspoon Smoked Paprika
2 Bay Leaves
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup milk
2 cup heavy cream
2 cans (each 6 1/2 oz.) chopped clam meat, plus reserved clam liquor
2 cans (each 6 1/2 oz.) smoked clam meat, plus reserved clam liquor
1 Pinch Kosher Salt or to taste
Fresh Black Pepper to taste
4 Tablespoons Flat Leaf Parsley, chopped (for garnish) OR
4 Tablespoons Chives, chopped (for garnish)
If using Slab Bacon, use a sharp thin knife to remove the rind. Chop bacon into chunks (think bit-size). If using thick sliced bacon, chop bacon into chunks as you would slab bacon. Set aside until ready to fry. (Why more sliced that slab? Shrinkage).
Coarsely chop celery stalks. You want to be able to see the celery and taste the celery in the finished chowder. Whenever chopping for chowder, think bite-size – not big hunks that cannot be eaten with a spoon, but not so small that they disappear. Set celery aside.
Peel and coarsely chop onion. Set aside until ready to use.
Peel potatoes, and cut into bite-size cubes. Place potatoes into cold water until ready to use to prevent discoloration. When ready, drain, pat dry and add to the pot as directed.
Over medium heat, cook bacon in a large cast iron skillet until it begins to brown and has rendered most of its fat, about 6 minutes. Stir bacon often as it cooks to prevent burning and to achieve a nice, even brownness. Remove bacon from the pan using a slotted spoon. Let drain on paper towels and set aside until ready to use.
Add the butter to the bacon drippings in the pan. When the butter melts, add the celery, and onion, sauté until the onion is translucent, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle vegetables mixture with flour and continue to cook, stirring, until flour is smooth and cooked through, about 5 minutes. If flour begins to brown, reduce heat to medium-low. If mixture becomes too thick, reduce heat and add a little more butter.
Transfer vegetables to a stock pot. Season with thyme and smoked paprika. Add the potatoes and stir well. Add all the reserved clam liquor, and broth. Bring pot to a boil. Add half of the bacon into the stock pot. Place bay leaves into the pot. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.
While chowder is simmering, chop parsley or chives for the finished presentation. Set aside until ready to use.
Once the potatoes are fork-tender, add the milk and cream to the stock pot and stir to combine. Add the clam meat and heat through, then season fresh ground pepper. Remove and discard the bay leaf. Taste chowder and season with salt if needed or desired. Ladle the chowder into individual soup bowls, garnish with remaining cooked bacon and parsley. Serve with slices of sourdough bread and creamy butter.
If desired, chowder can be ladled into small sourdough bread rounds. Simply slice off the top of the bread, then hollow out rounds to create soup bowls.