New England Clambake “Chowda”

All the flavors of a traditional New England Clambake in a bowl of chowda!

As a New Englander, I have been to traditional clam bakes on many occasions, usually festive events such as a wedding or reunion, anything from four people to several hundred, and what a time it is! A fire pit is dug, if you’re lucky on a beach. Large rocks are placed on top, the fire stoked until the stones are burning hot, and then wet seaweed is added to create great steam to cook everything. Layers of seaweed and all the ingredients are then covered with wet burlap or a tarp. Always clams, potatoes, corn, and sausage, and often lobster, mussels, and shrimp as well. It’s a waiting game until it’s ready, then the layers are peeled back like opening a present. The steaming is gentle, but effective; I’ve never been to one where anything was overcooked! Melted butter is passed around in abundance, we eat with our fingers, and delight in fresh local shellfish and accompanying vegetables.
A traditional New England clam bake is best enjoyed at the shore! What could be more fun than burying your food in seaweed and hot stones! This photo courtesy of Outer Cape Clambake, Wellfleet, MA

A feast to remember

While this is a feast to remember, more often than not we make a simpler clambake (technical a clam boil, but we still call it a clambake) in our own backyards and kitchens in a tall stock pot. Water is added to the pot along with herbs and spices (don’t forget the Old Bay) and we add everything in order of how long it takes to cook. First, potatoes and onions, cook for a few minutes, then sausage, corn, lobster, cook a little more. Clams go in next, followed a few minutes later by the shrimp and mussels. If outside, we put newspapers or a plastic cloth on the picnic table and fish out all the food with a large spider and everyone digs in. We don’t forget to serve up cups of the delicious cooking broth for dunking the clams and drinking! If inside, we simply fish out all the food with a big spider and place on a platter, with the clam broth served alongside in mugs.

Tastes just like a clambake!

This chowda (pardon the New England accent) combines all the flavors of a traditional clambake, in one bowl of soup! I made mine simply this time around, using just the clams for shellfish because I wanted the flavor of the clams to shine through without competition from their relatives! Another day, I might have added some lobster, or shrimp, possibly mussels. This will, of course, change the flavor of the broth, as well as the expense, but it will be heavenly in a completely different way! The best clams for a clambake are steamers, small quahogs, or littlenecks. They are all delicious, and we can usually find at least one of these at our fish markets here!

Lots of options

You can make this with light cream or with coconut milk if you want it dairy free, but I don’t make a thick roux to thicken it; I think the heaviness of the flour and extra fat masks the flavor of the seafood.  You can use any sausage you like, sweet or hot, or substitute soy sausage links if you want to avoid meat products. You can even leave it out altogether! You will want to use a firm potato so it keeps its shape while cooking. This time, I used colorful pink, purple, and yellow fingerlings, but little red potatoes work great as well.

New England Clambake Chowda!

  • 3 lbs. fresh littleneck or steamer clams in shell
  • 2 large onions, diced, divided
  • Small bunch of parsley, stems and minced leaves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ½ tsp. Old Bay seasoning
  • Black pepper
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 lbs. Italian sausage, large chunks, or soy sausage links
  • 1 leek, sliced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • 1 ½ lbs. fingerling or small red potatoes, diced
  • 2 ears fresh corn on cob, halved
  • 1 pint light cream
      Scrub the clams with a stiff vegetable brush and let them sit in lightly salted cold water for 15 minutes. Check for any cracks, or clams that have opened – a gentle tap on the counter and the clam should close, if not, it is probably dead so discard it. The soaking is essential in order to get as much sand or grit out of the clams as possible. My mom used to put cornmeal in the soaking water to help “clean” the clams, she said, as they took in and disgorged the water. You can do that if you like, but I haven’t found it works any better than just the plain water. Either way, there will be some sand in the bottom of the pan that you will have to either filter out, or let settle and carefully pour off the liquid leaving the grit behind. Change the water and soak an additional 15 minutes. Remove the clams from the water and set them aside. In a large pot bring a few cups of water to a boil. Once boiling, add the clams and place the lid on. Start checking at 5 minutes, they will probably take a little longer, but it all depends on the size. If you have really small ones, start checking at four minutes. Remove the clams as they open, this will happen fast once it starts. Once all the clams have opened, let them cool enough to handle. Remove them from the shells and place the shells back in the pot. Remove the membrane from the neck and chop the clams roughly. Place in the refrigerator while you make the soup base. Put the clam shells back on the stove and add another four cups of water, an onion, the bay leaves, some of the stems of the parsley, a half teaspoon of Old Bay seasoning, and lots of black pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and let cook gently for about 45 minutes. The broth will have a strong and delightful flavor of clams. Once the broth is ready, strain it into a large bowl through a fine-mesh strainer or a triple layer of cheesecloth. Put the pot back on over medium high and heat the olive oil. Brown the sausage, and continue to cook until done. Remove from the pan and let them rest for the time being with the clams in the refrigerator. Add a bit more oil if needed and add the second onion, the leek, and celery and cook until softened and just starting to brown. Stir in the garlic, followed by the white wine, scraping the bottom to deglaze the plan. Add the  broth back to the pot. There will probably still be some sand in the bottom, so pour it gently when you add it back to the soup, especially at the end. Add the potatoes and Corn. Bring to a boil and let cook for about 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Remove the corn and cut the kernels from the cobs. Add the kernels to the pot. Add the clams and sausage back in, and lighten with the cream of choice. Sprinkle with fresh parsley or chives if desired, and lots more black pepper. You will not need to add salt, but taste just to make sure! Variations: Of course, you can certainly add lobster, mussels, shrimps, scallops, crabs, and oysters! All of this might be found in the smoldering pit on the beach!

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25 Comments Add yours

  1. never heard of this dish!! looks delicious!!

    1. Well, you’ll have to visit New England!

  2. How clever to put all the flavors of an good old clam bake into a chowder, I know it’s delicious!

    1. Thanks Jenna! It really has all the flavors!

  3. New England Clambake “Chowda”

  4. The clam chowda looks so scrumptious!! Perfect with the weather getting cooler:))

    1. Thank you for stopping by, it really is a great Autumn dish!

    2. Thank you, we really enjoyed it!

  5. Sherry M says:

    i had a bit of a giggle there with ‘chowda’ cos that’s how we aussies say the word! looks tasty.

    1. Ah, then you’d fit right in!

  6. thatfoodguy62 says:

    I really like the way you present this recipe in story form, and the photos add so much. Thanks.

    1. You are very welcome! I try to show the process that leads to the recipe, whether it is a family tradition or a regional experience!

  7. Carolyn Page says:

    This recipe makes me want to turn, Dorothy!!!
    But, no; I’ll just let the meat eaters enjoy this one whilst I drool……

  8. chef mimi says:

    yum yum yum. now i just need clams. Next fall, hopefully, we’re going to maine and will experience at least one lobster/clam bake. I’m so excited!!!

    1. It is so much fun! And it partly feels like magic.

  9. I want some! Dorothy this is so delicious and the season is the season for Chowda. I love lots if black, coarse pepper too. Nothing is better than homemade chowda! Here’s to yours 💗👍👍!

    1. I’ll save you a bowl, there’s always a place at the table for everyone.

      1. Thank you! Please do! I love the original and homemade chowda! Have a wonderful week dear Dorothy! 💗💗☕️☕️

  10. Karen says:

    I really like the idea of a clambake chowder, I know my husband would enjoy it with the addition of sausage. I made clam chowder last evening as it was a rainy day and it was a comforting dish.

    1. Thanks! It really is a comforting dish, one that so many people love. My mom would have added bacon, and my husband loves the sausage, while I’m a purist, it’s all about the clam for me!

      1. Karen says:

        I put two strips of chopped bacon on ours because lots of the chowder that I ate when we lived in New Hampshire and Maine usually had a salt pork taste…but I never had a chowder there that I didn’t like. 😊

  11. Love this chowder. Your recipe looks delicious.

    1. Thank you so much! It was pretty tasty indeed!

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