New England Steamer Clam Chowder with Fennel

We call it chowdah, a regional staple with the flavor of the sea.

 A friend of mine asked me for a clam chowder recipe recently, and I told her to check my blog. However, there wasn’t one there! I checked my family cookbook, and I didn’t include one there either, lots of other chowdahs, but no clam. How could a New England food writer not have a recipe available for clam chowder? I had photos in my library, but no written recipe.

Write down that recipe!

I think this is simply one of those recipes that I never wrote down, I usually make it when I have a houseful and I make it a little different each time depending on how many and what type of clams I have, and whatever else I add to the pot. But it is pretty much the same most times: clams, onions, potatoes, probably fennel, and a cream of some sort. Write down those recipes!

Potatoes or not?

So here is a recipe I made one day, with photo, and a photo of one I made another. I used potatoes and fennel in both because that is how I love it. You can use onions or leeks, and any type of firm potato you like. Some New England purists omit the potatoes in all their chowders and just load with the clams and other seafood! I’m thinking of the former (sadly) No Name Restaurant on the Boston Fish Pier here. I ate there several times over the years, and it remained one of the best chowders I’ve ever had!

There’s always a chowdah, but sometimes it’s better than others

As summer approaches in New England, taste buds and menus turn to clam and lobster bakes and the ever-present chowder. It is best made with fresh clams you steam first and use all that luscious steaming liquid as the base. It is also best with a broth that is made from this liquid and a light cream or plant equivalent, no thick, gloppy roux for me! My mom and aunt always used canned milk, and both were adamant not to use a flour roux to thicken it, it doesn’t need it because it can overwhelm the delicate flavor of the clams. I agree. While you can find plenty of chowders around New England that are thickened, the best are not! If you can stand your spoon up in the bowl, you’ve picked the wrong restaurant.

New England soft-shell steamer clams

I’ve used steamer clams here, also called soft-shelled clams because although their shells are not really “soft” they are more brittle than littlenecks or cherrystones. They are sometimes sold as Ipswich or Essex clams. I love the flavor, and the broth made from the steaming is the absolute best. The only problem with them is the long nick or siphon which can be a bit tough and at best is a little off-putting to look at! Once the clams are cooked, cut the nicks off and you can finely mince them and add to the chowder for more flavor. When planning a chowder where you want the presentation to include the whole shells, use a different clam.

While a bit of salt pork or bacon is traditional here, I opted for just a little smoked paprika for a hint of that familiar flavor. This is pure clam from start to finish, and it’s memorable indeed!

New England Steamer Clam Chowder with Fennel

  • 4 lb. soft-shell steamers
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp. crushed fennel seeds
  • 5 cups water
  • 1 tbsp. unsalted butter or non-dairy butter
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 large leeks, white and light green, diced
  • 1 large or two small fennel bulbs, diced
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • ½ tsp. fennel seeds, crushed
  • Freshly ground black pepper, lots of it
  • 1 1/2 to 2 pounds red potatoes, bit sized chunks
  • 2 cups light coconut milk or light cream
  • Chives to garnish

Clean off the clams with a soft brush. Soak the steamers in salted water for at least a half hour, longer is better. Add about a tablespoon of salt per quart of water. You want the clams to release their grit, and they hold lots. Change the water and soak another half hour, at least. Check for any broken shells.

Add the five cups of water to a stock pot and gently place the clams inside along with a bay leaves and fennel seeds. Cover and cook for about five minutes and check. As the clams open, remove them to a bowl with tongs. Continue until they all open. If one or two don’t open after a few minutes beyond the last one, discard them.

Remove the clams from the shells, pull off the black skin on the “siphon” or neck and discard, cut the siphons off from the clam, finely mince them, and place the minced necks and whole bellies in a bowl. Cover and set aside.

Strain the clam steaming liquid, it always contains grit. This is now precious broth. Taste it! You will be happy just about now. You might even do a little dance.

Rinse the pot, return to the burner over medium high and add the butter and oil, then the leeks, fennel, paprika, and fennel seeds. Sauté until the vegetables are tender, then add the potatoes along with the reserved clam broth and a nice amount of freshly ground pepper. You want the potatoes to be covered, so if not, add a bit of water. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to a simmer. Continue cooking until the potatoes are tender. Don’t overcook.

Once the potatoes are done, add the cream and warm. Remove from the heat, check seasoning. Add the clams back to the pot, taste for seasoning, and serve, garnishing with a little more butter and few chives or fronds from the fennel.

If you cannot find steamers, you can do the same with littlenecks or cherrystones, and you don’t need to cut off the necks!

This version was made with littlenecks, and I reserved a few whole for each dish just to make presentation pretty! Here I used the fennel fronds to garnish.

Eating steamers straight up: The ritual.

If you order a lobster dinner at the shore, more than likely it will start with a sack of steamers with broth and butter. But they are easy to make at home as well.

Just follow the directions above for cleaning and cooking, but don’t remove the clams from the shells and don’t bother to strain the broth. The broth will be grey in color and kind of look like old dish water, but never fear, there is not much in this world with more flavor!

Place the clams in a big bowl in the middle of the table, and give everyone a cup of the broth. Everyone should also have a little bowl of melted butter with a squeeze of lemon juice.

The ritual: remove the clam from the shell, pull off the neck skin, dunk the clam in the broth to rinse off any left-over grit, then dunk the clam in the butter, and pop it in your mouth. When all the clams are eaten, drink the luscious broth, being careful not to consume the grit at the bottom. You can use slices of baguette to dunk into any left-over butter.

This is messy, but delightful and delicious good fun!

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57 Comments Add yours

  1. picpholio says:

    Looks delicious 🙂 Yummie

    1. Thank you! It’s one of our favorites!

  2. Suzassippi says:

    Another beautiful presentation with an environmentally appropriate serving dish! No wonder people say “kiss the cook”. Loved the story about the No Name Restaurant!

    1. Thank you my friend! I loved that restaurant, a no-frills place that served fresh fish straight up and beautifully prepared!

  3. Bernadette says:

    Thanks for a true New England specialty recipe and for explaining what a soft shell clam is.

    1. You’re welcome Bernie! One of my absolute favorites, right after just eating steamers with drawn butter straight up!

  4. Nancy says:

    Oh! My! Goodness! This looks delicious! And it’s “real” New England Clam Chowder. I am keeping this recipe forever!
    Thank you! Have a fabulous weekend!

    1. Thank you Nancy! I hope you get to make it with our local ingredients!

  5. Janperk1 says:

    Yes that was the best clam chowder I have ever had.

    1. Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed it Jan!

  6. Jovina Coughlin says:

    Wonderful combination of flavors

    1. Thank you! We love this!

  7. You are one of those people who can cook without a recipe! I’m so envious! Thanks for the stories and recipe, this looks fabulous, perfect for the spring! Hugs, C

    1. Quite frankly, I rarely use a recipe and this blog is one way of discipline for me to put it all down so it can be shared!

  8. Amanda says:

    Both versions look so very delicious, and so much better than Vegemite or black pudding. I’ll have to see if I can find some clams here. I think I might only be able to get mussels- but then any kind any kind of seafood chowder is delicious in my book.

    1. Ha ha! Yes better than that black pudding Amanda. I don’t think I’ve ever had Vegemite, not sure what it is!

  9. Anonymous says:

    Looks delicious. I live the addition of fennel!

    1. Thank you! The clams and fennel are great together!

  10. Ally Bean says:

    This looks delicious. I’ve never cooked a clam in my life, but if I ever do this is the recipe I’m going for.

    1. Thank you Ally! I do hope you find some on your hunter-gathering excursions in the future!

  11. Sheree says:

    Looks fabulous

    1. Thank you so much!

  12. CarolCooks2 says:

    Clams are very popular here methinks I should make this delicious sounding and beautiful looking chowder..Thank you for sharing and explalning the differences in clams, Dorothy 🙂

    1. Thank you Carol! It’s a delightful dish, and I hope you enjoy a such as we do!

      1. CarolCooks2 says:

        I’m sure we will we like a good bowl of soup/chowder 🙂

  13. NativeNM says:

    My husbands and his side of the family are big chowder fans. I know they would love this!

    1. Thank you Jan! It is one of our favorites that’s for sure!

  14. Gail says:

    Dorothy, you would literally have people following you around like the Pied Piper in Florida, begging for this Clam Chowder. I hear constantly how much they miss this tasty soup because they compare to the New England version. 😍😍😍

    1. That’s funny, I have them following me around my house too!
      It’s the clams, the luscious New England clams, that deserve most of the credit! When I lived down south, I missed it too.

      1. Gail says:

        People get cranky when they can’t have the best. 😜

      2. Ah, that they do!

  15. A New England classic, I’m sure your is outstanding!

    1. Thank you Jenna! We love this chowdah, and straight-up steamers as well!

  16. Chef Mimi says:

    This looks so wonderful. The day we got to Bah Hahba last fall I ordered a chowdah. And boy it was good. I’ll probably never be able to make one without using frozen clams.

    1. Thank you Mimi! There’s nothing like a good chowdah! I’ve never made one with frozen clams. Do they sell them in the shell?

  17. nancyc says:

    The potatoes and fennel sound great in this ! 🙂 Looks like a nice hearty chowder!

    1. Thank you Nancy! It is quite hearty, and satisfying!

  18. petespringerauthor says:

    When I was recently back on the east coast, I had to order some New England clam chowder. (We live near the Pacific Ocean), and I frequently order chowder when we go out to dinner here. Both versions were excellent, and I can’t say I preferred one over the other. I love potatoes in clam chowder.

    1. I like it best with potatoes too, Pete. I’ll take a chowder or fish stew, on any coast, any day of the week!

  19. Sometimes the foods we make often is forgotten when it comes to posting!
    For me, potatoes definitely belong there. Love the addition of fennel seeds.:)

    1. Thank you Ronit! The fennel is a nice subtle background flavor that goes beautifully with the clams.

  20. I love clams and your soup looks amazing Dorothy! I love that you added red potatoes.

    1. Thank you Diane! To me, it’s not chowder without some potatoes!

  21. Leah says:

    Dorothy, This sounds and looks divine! I salivating over your dish now! 🙂

    1. Thank you so much. It is always a family favorite around here!

  22. Mouthwatering just looking at it! Can I have some please? 😋😋

    1. Of course! I’ve saved you a bowl!

  23. There is nothing like ‘good’ chowder, and being from this area you certainly know it when you eat it. 🙂

  24. terrie gura says:

    It’s been rainy and dreary here the past two days and a comforting bowl of this with the potatoes and fennel would be the best thing ever! Funny that you didn’t have this classic on your blog. It’s just so obvious, and I’m sure you thought it was already there! 🙂

    1. I did Terrie, and I also didn’t have it in my cookbook! So funny, I guess I just thought I had already written it down, but there are so many variations of chowders! I love them all!

  25. I had to smile at the description of the steamers, “a little off-putting to look at”, my husband loves them. Your recipe sounds interesting with the added fennel seeds, I’ll have to try that.

    1. They are funny little things! But tasty for sure, and I would never think of removing the neck when eating straight up!

  26. Americaoncoffee says:

    The best! ❤️ 🍽 Yours is so authentic!

    1. Thank you! This is certainly a taste of New England!

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