Clam chowder improvising makes it a delicious, go-to treat year ’round

For purists, this is not a traditional chowder, but flavor-wise, it hits the spot.

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Lynda Balslev/TasteFood

Chowder is an all-year, all-weather soup.

When the weather is wet and chilly, there’s nothing more comforting than hunkering over a steaming bowl of chowder, with seafood and chunky potatoes jockeying for space in a rich and creamy stew. When the weather shifts to sunshine and warmth, a bowl of chowder evokes the sea and beach and memories of slurping piping-hot cups of clam chowder, filled to the rim with a milky broth speckled with tender littlenecks bobbing between oyster crackers and slicks of swirling, melted butter.

My roots are in the East Coast, so a New England-style clam chowder holds a special place in my food lexicon. Which is to say that wherever I’ve lived since then (and quite far from New England), when the craving strikes, I will rally and make a chowder. This at times requires a good amount of improvisation, depending on geography and available ingredients.

Over time, I’ve devised this simple recipe, to which I return when I need an easy fix. You might call it a hack — an inauthentic yet convenient recipe — that delivers the briny salt and smoke of a chowder while leaning toward the lighter side for guilt-free slurping. For purists, this is not a traditional chowder, but flavor-wise, it hits the spot.

The base of my chowder always consists of onions and potatoes with a little all-purpose flour for thickening. To that, I might add leeks and root vegetables, such as celery root or turnips, depending on the status of my vegetable bin.

Salt pork (or bacon) is a common ingredient in a chowder, lending the necessary salty, smoky depth of flavor to the broth. I often skip the pork component and substitute chunks of warm-smoked salmon (not cold-smoked) for that extra flavor.

Of course, warm-smoked salmon is not a refrigerator staple, and as a simpler alternative, I’ll add a generous spoonful of smoked paprika and up the salt. Finally, I add chicken stock to the base of the stew/chowder for more depth of flavor, then finish with a cup of milk or half-and-half for a lightly creamy broth.

So, whether you call this a chowder hack or a faux chowder, it’s a recipe worth keeping for a quick weeknight improvisation.

Note that the clams are cooked in their shells in this recipe. While they cook, the clam shells will open and release their juices into the broth. Choose small clams, such as littlenecks or Manila clams, or even substitute small mussels.

And in the spirit of ultimate flexibility, you can switch the shellfish out entirely and add chunks of firm-fleshed fish, such as salmon or halibut, and call it a fish chowder.

Clam Chowder

Yield: Serves 4 to 6

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 small yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 to 2 leeks, white and pale green parts chopped
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 4 cups chicken stock (and/or water)
  • 10 to 12 ounces Yukon gold potatoes, cut in bite-size chunks
  • 1 large turnip, diced
  • 2 thyme sprigs
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 16 littleneck clams
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups whole milk (or half-and-half)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon hot sauce, such as Tabasco

DIRECTIONS:

1. Heat the oil and melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and leeks and saute until soft without coloring, about 3 minutes. Add the flour and stir until slightly toasty in aroma, 1 to 2 minutes.

2. Pour in 2 cups chicken stock and whisk to blend. Add the potatoes, turnip, thyme and smoked paprika. Add additional chicken stock (or water) to completely cover the vegetables. Bring to a boil, partially cover the pot, and simmer until the vegetables are tender, 15 to 20 minutes.

3. Add the clams to the pot. Cover the pot and cook until the clams open, 5 to 7 minutes. (Discard any unopened clams.) Stir in the milk, salt, black pepper and hot sauce and continue to cook until just heated through. Taste for seasoning. Serve immediately.

Lynda Balslev is an award-winning food and wine writer, cookbook author and recipe developer. She authors the blog TasteFood, a compilation of more than 600 original recipes, photos and stories. More recipes can be found at chicago.suntimes.com/taste.

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