This recipe — borne out of an aromatic journey down memory lane, through the clam shacks of my childhood, and up to the present day, through the kitchens of the Basque country — combines the essential elements of a New England clam chowder (clams, potatoes, onions and corn in a broth enriched with milk) with several fundamental elements of Basque cuisine: choricero peppers, Pimentón de la Vera, and bacalao.
This chowder is at once hearty and substantial, yet it remains delicate and fragrant, with the flavors of the clams and fish shining through the broth. Just in time for our Basque Thanksgiving feast next week, it strikes a perfect balance for me between what I have known “forever” in my New Englander bones about great chowders, and what I have been absorbing since I came to live on the other side of the Atlantic. I hope you love it too!
2 kilos (4.5 pounds) hard-shell clams, scrubbed and purged
1 kilo (2.2 pounds) rehydrated salt cod, cut into pieces (2.5-5 cm/1-2 inches)
275 g (0.5 pounds) smoked bacon, cut into lardons
4 medium leeks, trimmed and sliced into 1-cm pieces
1 large onion, peeled and diced
6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
5 medium potatoes, peeled and diced into 1-cm cubes and held in cold water
500 ml (2 cups) whole milk
3 bay leaves
6 black peppercorns
3 sprigs fresh thyme
500 ml (2 cups) dry vermouth
6 grams (1 Tbsp) Pimentón de La Vera
20 grams (1 Tbsp) pulp of rehydrated choricero peppers
350 grams (1 cup) corn kernels, sliced from 2 large cobs, or canned
6 grams (2 Tbsp) fresh chives, finely chopped
3 grams (1 Tbsp) fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 liters (8 cups) white fish stock, heated to a boil and left barely simmering
1 baguette-style loaf of bread, cut into 1-cm slices
1 garlic clove, sliced into paper-thin slices
1 gram (4-5 individual) small, dried cayenne peppers
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Prepare the clams and clam broth. In a large pot combine 175 ml (3/4 cup) of the dry vermouth, 350 ml (1 1/2 cups) of water, 1 bay leaf and 6 peppercorns and bring to a boil. Add the clams, cover, and cook until the clams just open. Move them gently once or twice, taking care not to break their shells. Remove from heat. Remove the clams from the liquid with kitchen tongs and strain the liquid through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean bowl. Shell the clams and reserve them in another small bowl. Discard the shells.
2. Prepare the sofrito. In a large, clean pot, sweat the bacon lardons over medium heat until they begin to render their fat. Then raise the heat slightly and toast them on all sides.
3. Add the onion, leeks and garlic to the pot with the bacon, season with salt and cook over medium heat until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the corn kernels.
4. Add the remaining vermouth and allow it to reduce almost completely. Add the choricero pepper pulp and the pimentón and stir well.
5. In another medium pot, combine the milk, thyme, 2 bay leaves and potatoes, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 6 minutes.
6. Add about 1.25 liters (about 5 cups) of the fish stock to the sofrito and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat slightly and add in the mixture of potatoes and milk. Stir well. It is important that the chowder not return to a rapid boil from this point on (to keep the milk from separating), but it should be kept hot, over medium-high heat.
7. Gently incorporate the salt cod and simmer gently until the fish is firm, about 5 minutes. Stir occasionally. Taste. Season with salt and black pepper. Incorporate chopped chives and parsley. Remove the pot from the heat.
8. In a wide, shallow pan, heat a thin layer of olive oil over medium heat, along with the paper-thin slices of garlic and the cayenne peppers. When the garlic begins to just sizzle, add as many slices of bread as will fit in the pan in an even layer and toast them, first on one side then on the other. Remove toasts to a plate and sprinkle with a hint of pimentón. Discard the cayenne peppers.
9. Serve the chowder in wide bowls with two or three toasts nestled right into the broth. Grab a spoon.
Enjoy! On egin!