Friday, November 19, 2010

New England Clam Chowder and "To Shell or Not to Shell?"

New England clam chowder has been a popular food wish over the years, and I finally got around to filming it last January. The problem was I filmed it as an assignment for About.com, which means I have no control over when it airs. Sometimes it only takes a few days, and sometimes, like in this case, it takes many months.

Anyway, thanks for your patience, which I hope you'll feel has been rewarded. This is my take on a fairly traditional New England clam chowder, which is probably lighter in texture than you are used to.

My contacts deep inside the authentic clam chowder underground (ACCU) don't agree on much, but most do say "real" clam chowder is nothing like that thick, gray pudding served on Friday at your friendly neighborhood restaurant chain. I've also had "classic" chowders that were very thin, almost watery. I think this is a happy medium.

Above and beyond the recipe, I'd love to open up a discussion on whether this soup should be served with the shells or not. When I posted the written recipe back in January, a friend of mine, Tamar (who publishes the always entertaining blog, Starving Off the Land), left this com
ment…
"Okay, John, I think it's high time we had the shells-in-food debate. Your recipe looks fabulous, of course, as all your recipes do (don't get me started on the Boston cream pie), but I've always had a problem with shells in my food. It's hard, when you're sitting at the dinner table, to get the shellfish out when the shells are hot and covered with soup, or Bouillabaisse, or marinara sauce, and still be elegant and refined. (And you know how concerned I am with elegance and refinement.)

You seem to have a sophisticated, food-oriented readership. Perhaps you should ask them to weigh in. This is a debate whose time has come."

So, what do you think? I'm a firm believer in serving the soup with the shells, but I shall save my official argument for the comments section. I hope you enjoy the soup and the debate!

Note: Since this video is hosted on About.com, when you click the player, you will be taken off the blog to the video page. For the ingredients, click here to see the original post.


Clams Photo (c) starvingofftheland.com

45 comments:

tonkaslim said...

No shells. Looks nice, but eating should not require housekeeping. If it's not edible I don't want it in my food.

Anonymous said...

I have a problem with shells in my food too. I'm originally from NJ, but now live in Fl. My family has been making Manhattan clam chowder for years, no shells. We clean our crabs BEFORE we cook them. We also fillet our fish.

Point is, inedible things on my plate don't belong there. Now, as my cooking has matured, I've started using shells and heads and such in stocks and broths, but they always get removed prior to making the main dish. No detritus on my plate please!

-Pyrofish

Liana @ femme fraiche said...

Though I am not sure what the answer is to this, but, if the shells contribute to the flavour of the dish, than I would definitely be on the shells-in vote. I think that the integrity of a dish should never be sacrificed for clean-eating. I definitely despise slobs at the dinner table, and am very pro-table-manners, but I think with care, one can get around the issue of de-shelling while they eat!

saltyseattle said...

soup and debate is exactly what i need today to cheer me up:)

wanted to drop by and let you know that i'm very happy our worlds have collided. you are a great person who adds abundant value to my world. xo, linda

Chef John said...

Wow, thanks Sally. That's the sweetest thing I've heard all day. Granted, I've only been up for an hour, but still. ;-)

JoAnn said...

Steamer clams in the shell are one of my favorite apps. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl is my next favorite. Personally I enjoy dishes with shells whether they're shrimp, clams, mussels, or lobster. You don't have to be a slob to eat with your fingers and there's something primal about the experience I enjoy plus the added flavor.
So glad you added the bacon to the chowder. As always, a great recipe.

GreyingJay said...

I say leave the shells. If the juices were in the shells, that adds to the flavour of the dish. And having the shells indicates that you used fresh clams (or mussels, or whatever) as opposed to maybe trying to pull a fast one using the canned stuff.

GreyingJay said...

... though after doing some Googling, I discovered that it is apparently possible to buy canned, shelled clams, so that partially invalidates my previous point.

Chef John said...

In Defense of Shells in Chowder

The crux of the anti-shell argument seems to boil (or simmer gently) down to not wanting to look indelicate and/or get dirty fingers. Well, there are just a certain number of foods – ribs, chicken wings, shellfish dishes, just to name a few, where this is just part of the show.

If I order chowder that claims to be garnished with fresh, sweet clams, I want the shells (aka visual proof) in my bowl. Maybe I've been blessed with an unusual level of hand-eye coordination, but I've never had much trouble scooping the meat from the shells anyway. Worst case, I use a fork (available upon request) in the other hand to pin the shell down, and use the spoon to liberate the muscle.

Can you imagine a customer in San Francisco asking the chef to de-shell the seafood in his Ciopinno? In that case, I think "crime against nature" would be an understatement. Or, "Excuse me, can I get boneless wings?" Yes, we call them McNuggets. Oh, you don't like bones in your ribs because it messes up your fingers, well, may I suggest the pulled pork (I was going to use the better example of the McRib, but I already used McNuggets).

So, in summation, everyone who doesn't agree with me is wrong.

GreyingJay said...

I want to see John recite that argument using that silly "spreading" technique they use in high school debate teams (e.g. reading super super fast).

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

So, let me get this straight. The reason you want shells left on is because that's the only way you can tell if the clams are fresh. I mean, really, if you can't tell, does it really matter?

And as for the cioppino argument, that's saying that you want it that way because it's always been that way. That's why doctors used bloodletting for 400 years.

For a guy who comes up with innovative improvements on traditional recipes EVERY DAY, that's a hell of a regression.

It's certainly true that there are things we eat with our fingers. For very good reasons, soup isn't one of them.

I just asked my readers to weigh in, and we'll tally the responses when they're all in. I predict a SHELLacking.

Chef John said...

First of all, you don't scare me with your clever puns. Second of all, that's my point, you DON"T eat this soup with your fingers (you can, I guess, but not necessary).

Speaking of innovative improvements, I think I'll film "how to eat clam chowder with shells without getting your fingers dirty." btw, I assume the video will be shorter than the title. ;-)

Chef John said...

Forgot to ask, am I to assume that if you went to a Paris bistro, and ordered a bowl of mussels swimming in that amazing butter/wine/garlic/herb broth, that you'd actually prefer it sans shells?

Chris K. said...

Personally, I like chowder with shell-in clams, for exactly the same reasons described in Chef John's "Defense."

If you're the cook, put whatever the hell you want in it. If anybody complains, tell them to go shuck themselves.

But conch chowder - that's a whole other thing. If there's a shell in my bowl, it'd better be a garnish.

Chef John said...

Damn it! How did I not think of the "go shuck themselves" line?!

Wendy B. said...

No shells, please. Too much liquid waste (unless you stick the shell in your mouth and suck off the juice first and that's just, well, gross.)

I also hate peel and eat shrimp as an appetizer, especially at a stand up reception. I mean, how exactly does one peel a shrimp while holding a glass of wine in one hand and a plate of nibblies in the other. Anybody...?

GreyingJay said...

I will concede that peel-it-yourself shrimp is a pain. I especially don't like the Asian style prawns that are typically battereid, spiced and fried -- whole -- and then you have to peel the skin off, taking away most of that yummy spicy breading while making a mess on your fingers.

My parents have learned to just eat the whole thing -- shell and all -- yuck.

The Mollusk Queen said...

Can polish off buckets of clams and mussels with the shells on in garlicky clear broth with parmesan, fresh tomatoes & crusty bread to soak up the juices. But in a chowder with potatoes and milk where and I can't see what I'm eating? As Frank Lloyd Wright said, "Form Follows Function". I worry about breaking a tooth!

Chef John said...

Somewhere Charles Darwin is smiling.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand.com said...

"Go shuck yourself." Now that's genius.

For the record, clam shells contribute nothing to flavor. It's like putting rocks in your soup. What they do contribute is grit -- which is why it makes sense to steam them separately, pour off the clam juice, and add that, sans grit, to your chowder.

But I have to say, it's worth it to be on the other side of this debate just so you can say "Go shuck yourself."

Chef John said...

A hundred years from now, when we're all sucking food paste out of squeeze tubes, you guys will miss soup with shells and the occasional grit. (btw, yes, we'll all still be alive thanks to future president Palin's amazing health plan)

Wendy B. said...

You didn't just say "president Palin" did you? I would do almost anything to get a woman into the White House. Except that. Oh, and I'm Canadian.
(I do have a morbid fascination with her daughter on DWTS, though. Does that make me a bad person...?)

Chef John said...

Yes, yes it does. ;-)

Beth said...

Lots of interesting comments..I just like that we've found someone as sassy or maybe sassier than Tamar..

But for all the reasons give above..mess, waste of precious liquid, grit, and nothing added...add me to the shell-less side. ..and just because you don't want shells in your chowder doesn't mean your won't chow down on a plate full of mussels (and their shells)....

Anonymous said...

NO shells

The Daily Sarah said...

About the grit... don't you guys rub your clams down with a wet towel before cooking them?

The thing about the chowder is that the clams in the shell are on top (a garnish and therefore supposed to be eye catching), and usually shelled clams are mixed in, so there shouldn't be a worry about chipping a tooth.

And who cares about looking elegant while eating a bowl of chowder? Chowder is quintessential comfort food. If you're eating with someone who will judge your ability to elegantly eat clam chowder, you probably shouldn't be eating with them.

Stephen said...

No sheels too! Those shells are disturbing on our eating momentum.

Stephanie - Wasabimon.com said...

NO shells. And it's taking all I have to not say something dirty about having slimy shells in your clam soup, so I'll just press the send button before I can't help myself.

Anonymous said...

I don't like the shells in there, but I can take the clam shells in chowder. They do look purty. I'd rather they not be there though.

The one that really bugs me is blue crabs in gumbo, or blue crabs in spaghetti. How the hell are you supposed to eat that!? All of that delicious gumbo gravy dripping all over the place while you pick apart the shell...

Anonymous said...

i just want to tell you something important chef john
about a month ago i fell down a flight of stairs, at the hospital they informed me that i would be paralyzed from the waist down. they released me from the hospital two weeks ago. they left me with a wheelchair. i just want to say, that first week was absolutely horrible. however, last week on my laptop, i found your channel. i just want to let you know that after enjoying one of your amazing recipes i have become fully capable of walking, i can even tap dance now! thanks chef john!

Razors Edge said...

Real clam chowder might not be thick but thats the way I like it.

So there !

Chef John said...

I prefer thicker than this myself! This recipe was done for About.com.

Karen D said...

I like Clam chowder thick. I like it off shell because :

1: I don't want to worry about the shell when I eat soup.

2. It is creamy and delicate, so I don't want the shell to interupt the real texture.

3. Soup is to enjoy before the main course, so I want to enjoy it with peace and quite, no picking shell off.

I hope I made sense :P

darcyholte said...

you love clams but you hate to see them getting shelled. Theres something primal about eviscerating an animal for yourself, a special experience that typically only seafood can provide. I love the way these whole,foods remind me of the connection to the land and sea, and the value and beauty of both. I would even go so far as to say there is a dignity in serving clams whole, valuing the beauty of the shell, and the succulent flavor inside. We respect these noble sifters when we display them unabashedly and give them all the credit for the chowder that bares their name. End of inspiring tribute.

Anna Johnston said...

Hey Chef John, I'm a newbie to your site and am lovin' the debate rattling on here 'to shell or not to shell' that is the question it seems.
Well... I say 'To Shell" definatly absolutely..., its all part of eating a classic like clam chowder I say & this is a dish we Aussie Chefs hardly ever make (unless like me you spent some time in New England where you fell madly, deeply & forever in love with this dish).
Looking forward to reading more.
Cheers Anna

Razors Edge said...

Take off the shell if you're serving this to jewish friends. Doing so makes this a kosher dish.. sort of.

juffurey said...

i saw on julia and jacques a good tip to help make the chowder a little thicker is to keep the potatoes on a plate instead of putting them in water after you cut them so the natural starch doesnt get washed off and helps thicken the soup a little.

Broklynite said...

I don't like shells. It isn't about being fresh, it isn't about my hands getting dirty. It's about burning my darned fingers. I can always wipe my fingers off on a napkin. But I hate fishing and dipping my possibly dirty fingers into my food, and having to remove a boiling hot inedible part. It drives me nuts, and hurts my fingers. I've had both good and bad deshelled shellfish. It comes down to the quality of the product, not the shell. The shell really has nothing to do with it. The rare exception are things like shrimp, where the flavor comes from the shells mainly. However, in that case you can remove the shells and use them to make a stock. There is no need to leave the tails on. That wastes the lovely tail meat, or I have to sit there bruning my fingers to remove the meat from the tail. The alternative is to wait until my food is cold until I can eat it, which is also unappetizing. Just take the stupid shells off, please, I'm sick of them.

EDGAR said...

I vote for shell on it i think makes the soup look great, plain white chunky just doesn't do it for me, toss in some crutons as well... anyway, how about a video on how to make the bread bowl to put this delish chowder??

Jeffrey said...

it's never necessary to use your fingers to unshell something, unless it's a crab or lobster or crawfish something like that. it should be easy to get the meat out of a clam or mussel with just a fork and knife, unless you're captain hook

Cheetahpro said...

Shells are no problem just eat around them and leave them in your bowl. Being from Nova Scotia we make clam chowder about 3-4 times a month, this is the first recipe I've ever found on the internet that makes it the right way, most call for the cream or milk to go in and boil with the potato, the only difference in your recipe that I do different, being a chef myself, is use a little more potato and boil/simmer about twice as long and stir only when well done, continue to stir or mash as you did until quite thick, add cream or milk until desired thickness, this eliminates the flour. Fresh clams make a huge difference in this recipe even if you only have a few...its all about the shells and clam juice flavors. Thanks Chef John excellent recipes/videos been following ever since I found your mayo recipe on you-tube about 2-3 years ago.

Jenna said...

I made this Friday night (sans the whole clams as we could not get any) and it was FANTASTIC! The only problem? It did not make enough! LOL :)

Jay M. said...

Tucking back through some of these videos for dinner ideas, and boy, this comment section sounds like a bunch of whiny toddlers! It's friggin' clam chowder! It's like complaining about bones in an oxtail stew!

I'm sorry, but if you have problems chomping onto shells, take more than a few seconds to wolf down your food, and appreciate it. Savor it. Look at what you're eating. Burning your fingers? Seriously? Utensils are there to lift things out of the bowl. And getting all the delicious meaty bits out of the nooks and crannies is a great part of the experience. As for shrimp tails, they're like perfect little handles, just pinch the end a little as you bite down and they release perfectly.

It's about more than just refueling. They way a dish is presented can make it a unique experience. Various colors, textures, and flavors all play with our different senses and enhance a meal, transforming it altogether.

Think about it: Remove the shells, puree the soup, and slug it down in a to-go mug. Or, crush up a few crackers and sprinkle them over the bowl, get a couple spoonfuls of those creamy clams and bacon with a little of that parsley, and taste and chew and appreciate. Then maybe pluck a couple of those clams out of their shells, and enjoy the little differences in texture and flavor that are hidden in those perfect little packages.

Shells on, my friends!

Larry D said...

Sorry I got to the party late. I love the conversation. Personally I think shells on is a great way to enjoy this treat, much the same as I love an ear of sweet corn or enjoy cutting a slice off a rustic loaf of bread. For me a big part of the experience is an appreciation of the food in its natural state.

tribo said...

I have eaten fresh clams on the half shell most of my adult life, i love steamed manila clams also. I think i will personally just make both and serve seperately, the manila's i will serve with drawn butter/garlic/and lemon along side the clam chowder with a few personal adjustments.

I will dine on the dozen or more manila's while the soup cools a little and then enjoy the chowder. That way i can have my shells and chowder to ;-)