I have to qualify this as Little Neck chowder as most chowder in New England is made with large chowder clams aka quahogs. Technically, most eastern hard-shell clams are quahogs, but they are named and sold according to size. Quahog is reserved for the largest of the hard shell clams.
This is a not-so-thick, less creamy chowder than most. I like it this way—the brininess of the clams really comes through. If you like yours thicker and/or creamier, increase the flour to 2 tablespoons and the milk to 2 cups. I have tried a non-dairy version of this with vegetable oil and almond milk. It was dreadful, as I knew it would be before I started. Which brings me to the title of my (not yet written) autobiography: I Knew What Would Happen But I Did It Anyway.
Makes 4 cups, 2 main course servings
30 little neck clams, 20 cherrystones or 12 quahogs
2 tablespoons butter (or bacon, see note)
1 medium onion, diced (about 1 ½ cups)
2 ribs celery, trimmed and diced (about 1 cup)
1 ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ tablespoons all purpose flour
1 ½ cups milk
1 medium russet (Idaho) potato, peeled and cut into ½ inch diced (about 1 ½ cups)
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley, optional but nice
Scrub the clam shells well with a stiff plastic brush. Put the clams in a pot with 1 ½ cups water. Heat to a boil over high heat. Cover and steam until the clams open, about 5 minutes for little necks or up to 10 minutes for quahogs. Remove the clams with a slotted spoon or wire skimmer and let them cool. If you want to be sure you don’t end up with tough clams, or if you’re obsessive like me, lift the lid at about the halfway mark of cooking and scoop out any open clams. Do this every minute or so until the clams are all open. Or skip step this entirely and pull them when the last clams open. Strain the cooking liquid through a sieve lined with paper towel and set it aside. Pull the clams from the shells and chop them roughly. Leave a half-dozen clams in the shell to add to the finished chowder.
Heat the butter in a heavy 3 or 4-quart pot over medium heat. Add the onion, celery and thyme. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables are soft, about 4 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring, 3 to 4 minutes. Pour in the clam cooking liquid Bring to a boil, stirring (especially in the corners). Add the potatoes and return to a boil. Adjust the heat so the liquid is simmering. Season lightly with salt and pepper and cook until the potatoes are tender but not mushy, 8 to 10 minutes.
Stir in the chopped clams and heat through. Check the seasoning and add more salt and/or pepper if you like. Stir in the parsley if using. Put the whole clams into a warm soup bowl and ladle the chowder over them.
Bacon! Substitute 1/3 cup slab bacon cut into 1/4-inch cubes and 1 tablespoon vegetable oil for the butter. Put the bacon and oil in the cold pot over medium-low heat and cook until the bacon is lightly browned. Scoop out the bacon with a slotted spoon, leaving the fat in the pot and set the bacon aside. Normally, when making bacon “lardoons,” I wouldn’t add any oil. But you need it here to sauté the vegetables.