Wednesday, January 4, 2012

100th Post! Monterey Clam Chowder

Everyone who grew up on the Monterey Peninsula knows about Old Fisherman's Wharf and it's clam chowder debate.  I don't think there's much debate really.  You should visit for yourself and decide for free!  After about 11am nearly a dozen of the restaurants on the Wharf post their staff outside with a large pot of "their chowder" enticing you in.  It's practically lunch to try them all.

It didn't always used to be this way.  
Old Fisherman's Grotto used to be the only one.  You know the one.  Right past the candy store on the left hand side.  It was my favorite part as a kid.  First, there was the dancing monkey and his owner that never seemed to age.  Immortal entertainment.  Then as you entered the Wharf you could smell the taffy and fudge.  EVERY kid went in.  And EVERY kid wanted to work there when they grew up.  Then, right when you thought you'd had enough sweets there was Old Man Grotto... or one of the workers, pouring you a sampling of chowder in a Styrofoam cup.  It was perfectly hot, smoky, clammy, not too many potatoes, just salty enough.  I remember trying to get my tongue to the very bottom of the cup, desperately getting every last drop.  I learned that if I chewed off the top part of the cup (making it smaller) I could actually reach it.

It's still no contest.  They make the best.  Hands down.

And guess what?  I found the acclaimed recipe.  I just had to try it to see if it's what I knew as the best.

Before you think about scrolling to the bottom or starring it for later- you must know this chowder got a standing applause from Chris.  "Honey, this chowder has changed my life.  Maybe the best soup you've ever made, bar none."  I'm serious.  He said that.  Guys, this is serious stuff.

Old Fisherman's Grotto Monterey Clam Chowder

  • 1 carrot-diced
  • 1 medium onion-diced
  • 1 potato-diced
  • 1 stalk of celery-diced
  • 1/2 lb minced bacon
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 3 cloves fresh garlic-minced
  • 1/2 quart (2 cups) clam juice
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 cups cream
  • 2 cups half-and-half
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 lb chopped clams (fresh if possible)
  • 4 sour dough bread loaves

  • I followed their recipe to the T, not wanting to screw it up.  The one change I would have made is crisping the bacon first as opposed to cooking it with the veg.  Maybe this was on purpose, but a little more time by itself would have been a good idea for texture.

OK, first a lesson on clams.  These are Manilla clams.  They should not smell when you get them (meaning fresh).  Place them in water with a little flour.  The flour will cause the clams (yes, they are alive!) to spit out any dirt or sand.  A lovely little trick.  I use the same trick for my mussels steamed in beer.

Then drain them and inspect.

This is a good clam.  Keeps his mouth shut cause he knows what's best for him.

This is a bad clam.  He's sticking his tongue out (or leg or whatever that appendage is).  Do not eat this one.

He doesn't get to play with the others.

Place your "good clams" in a bowl and prepare a pot with about an inch of water in the bottom to steam them.  If you have a colander or steamer that works great too.  With the water simmering it should only take the clams about 3-4 minutes to open.  You'll be shocked at how easy it is!

Remove the clams that have opened.  They are good to go.

This was my first clam experience.  Fascinating little guys.

A few late bloomers.  Gave them another minute and sure enough.

Two of them did not open.  If you have these, even after 5 minutes of steaming they were most likely dead when they were harvested and will make you sick if you eat them.  So 3 out of about 20 is not bad.  Always get a few more than anticipated because of this reality.

So, set your clams aside to cool.

Chop up your bacon.

And your veg.

Melt your butter over medium heat in a separate pot than the clams.  Add your bacon and let it crisp, just enough.  Not breakfast crunch, but the beginnings of that stage.  Adding bacon to butter.  It just seems so wrong and so right all at once.

Then add your celery, carrot, onion, potato and cook together.

Next add your flour and make a rue.  It's a THICK rue.  Be warned.  Just keep turning it.  No mashing.  This is precious stuff.

Next add your cream.

Then your half and half.

Then your milk.

To be honest- I'm not sure why it wasn't half cream and have milk.  Isn't half and half simply that?  Whatever- just do it.  This chowder is worth it.  We can experiment later.

Fillin' up.

Next add clam juice.  This is crucial, no skimping.

Whisk.  Do not boil.  You want it just barely to "glub glub."  Very official, I know.

Aw.  They thought we forget about them.  

They should come out of their shells effortlessly.  They are attached to the shell with a little muscle.  You'll see it.  Just pull them off of the shell kindly and toss the shells.

Now, be heartless and chop them up.  You already cooked them alive.  Finish the deed.

Toss them into the pot.  Now add your garlic.  I like this part- it's a quick cook on the garlic.  A fresher taste.

And a half teaspoon on cracked black pepper.  It's the perfect finish.  It shouldn't need salt with the bacon and the clam juice but season to your liking.

It was just then that I decided to taste it.  And folks, I could have screamed all the way home to Monterey, but instead I found a chair and savored the moment.  It was exactly the flavor I remembered as a kid.  I know that smell is the closest sense tied to memory, but in that moment, taste was the closest.  

Chris found me in the kitchen, content with my empty spoon.  "Are we ready?  I'm dying."  He's always dying, it's a constant state of crisis.

One more step, if you so desire.  And we do.

Cut a whole in your bread bowl.

Then dig out the insides to make room for your lovely chow-da!

Now fill generously.  Don't be careful.  Slop is good in a chowder bowl.  It's authentic.

The drippy sides are good for licking while you're waiting for everyone to sit down.

Now don't tell me you're not hungry.

And for all of you calorie counters for 2012, go for the mug option.  Still just as sexy.


  1. Wow! I'm drooling. Clam chowder is one of John's favorites, and I can't eat it because of the dairy. Will have to think about surprising him--maybe for Valentine's Day.

    Thanks for the early morning reading while I'm waiting for the cough syrup/codeine to kick in.

  2. Great tutorial. I was going to make some chowda, and go for the fresh clams. Holy moly! Whole Foods would have cost me $35.00 for the whole pot! I'll keep my eyes open for fresh clams that are more affordable. I've never killed anything that was alive, but I'll suck it up and do it. Congrats on your standing ovation. There's nothing like it, when it comes from someone you adore.

  3. LOVE it...They serve the same chowder at Fish Hopper on Cannery Row too.( same owners) In case you forgot...had this chowder experience on my honeymoon with dad in 1980. Monkey was there then too! Off to buy some clams!! xoxo

  4. Noelle, I'm the newest Salonen and your newest biggest fan! Awesome post- your mum and dad reccommended old fisherman's grotto to us and while visiting and so Andy and I wandered down and had some amazing clam chowder! The only downfall was that Andy stopped me from opening the window and letting the seaguls in (hey we're landlocked out here, how was I to know it was "uncooth") I'm going to have to follow your (their) recipie to take us back!
    -Mimi Salonen

  5. Sarah and I were just there in May! I love clam chowder. I can't wait to make this.