Eccentric, Eclectic California Culinary

Cowboy Hibachi Clam Chowder

When Phil Reader and I first designed my Cowboy Hibachi three years ago, I immediately envisioned just one thing: dutch oven clam chowder.  At long last, with a new Lodge No. 10 dutch oven and a labor day weekend cookout providing the perfect excuse to experiment, the dream finally became reality–and the result was well worth the wait.

It may seem nothing short of sacrilege to take a grilling rig built on a cattle ranch in California and convert it for cooking meet without feet.  From first weld, my hibachi was destined for drastically different surroundings: the family beach house in the Hamptons.  My family has maintained a summer residence here for four generations, and while we never wrangled cattle, we’ve fished our fair share of shellfish for many waistline-expanding clam bakes. And wouldn’t you know it, it’s home to the first and oldest-operating cattle ranch in the entire United States, Deep Hollow Ranch in Montauk—est. 1658 and still going strong.

Paying homage both to familial and Hamptons heritage, I deviated from CBH design norm and styled my grill with a touch of nautical flair.  The base (very) features a lip to roughly resemble an old whaling pot, once as common a sight in Sag Harbor as “citiot” Manhattanite tourists today.  The dutch oven hangers were made with round stock rather than square to appear as fish hooks, and instead of horseshoes for handles, mine has dock cleats.

Everette and owner/chef Jamie of Mommylou's Cheesecake perform the official taste test

My calling as a chowder cook came naturally.  Throughout my youth, I watched in awe as my grandfather, a military man with an exceptionally hearty appetite after long famished years in German POW camp, would wander out at morning low tide wielding his trusty clam rake and Seahawk inflatable rowboat, returning with weighted down swim trunks brimming from the pockets with quahogs. Chowder lunches were a regular ritual, and I’ve been hooked on New England-style variety ever since. As a college student in San Luis Obispo, however, I had an epiphany upon my first bowl at what would become a regular pilgrimage: Splash Cafe.  A single spoonful from that sourdough bread bowl instantaneously redefined my definition of clam chowder, and from that moment on I’ve been determined to crack their covert recipe.

At least as far as I’m concerned, Splash (though closely tied with Steamer’s of Pismo and Bosco’s Bones & Brew in Sunol) bowls the best chowder on the planet.  Right Coasters find it rather bizarre when I tell them the best New England clam chowder I’ve had is from California.  But from Portland, Maine to Montauk to the Gold Coast of Connecticut, I’ve slurped not a single serving that can measure up, no matter how many native New Englanders can spoon from the same crock and claim it excellent.  Maybe my palate was just spoiled in San Luis Obispo.  Even despite all my youthful years of chowder chowing at Gosman’s Dock, a personal favorite, even theirs just doesn’t cut it.  Once you go Splash, you just never go back.

Their secret recipe remains a closely guarded one, and inherently immune to the constant courtship of food magazines hankering to break it.  Nevertheless, after much research, I sourced the best sounding ingredients from a half-dozen recipes and decided to take a stab at adapting my own.  Mind you, it’s still no Splash, but I must say the taste comes close, and it sure beats the steamer water 9/10 restaurants call “clam chowder” by 150% (at least IMHO, anyway).  Those used to the latter may find it a bit heavy, so “cup” portions are best, especially for first-timers–and don’t even try and justify it into your diet.  In any case, I no longer need to wait until the next person airmails me another birthday package from Pismo on dry ice.  If only my grandfather was still here for the taste test!

HAMPTON CLASSIC CLAM CHOWDER*

(*at a loss for a better name, I’ve named it for the horse show going down the weekend I first cooked it, always good reason to avoid area restaurants and keep it real in the backyard)

Yields approx. 4 small bowls or 5-6 “cups”

Ingredients:

3 cups fresh minced clams

1 cup (full 8 fl. oz. bottle) of clam juice

1/2 quart heavy cream

1/4 oz. Worcestershire sauce

1-1/2 red potatoes, diced

1/2 white onion, diced

1/2 stalk celery, diced

2 strips low-sodium bacon, diced

1 tablespoon chicken stock

1/2 oz. granulated garlic

1/2 oz. pepper

1/4 oz. sea salt

2-3 tbsp. corn starch

1-1.5 oz. fresh Parmesan cheese, thinly-sliced or grated

Parsley for garnish (optional)

Method:

Prepare ingredients as indicated and set aside.  In a large greased frying pan, begin to fry the bacon; when partially cooked, mix in onions and saute until bacon is lightly crisp but onions have not begun to brown.In dutch oven (or pot), add mixture to the remainder of the ingredients sans the cream and Parmesan cheese and bring to near boil.  Check and stir regularly.  Once bubbles begin to appear, add the cream, stir, and follow with the cheese.  Continue to check and stir regularly until clams appear cooked and potatoes have softened (approx. 30-45 minutes).  Add corn starch to thicken as needed, one tablespoon at a time. Remove from heat, taste and add further seasoning, if necessary. (With this recipe, I find it’s best to be a minimalist and add as you go.  A catch of clams is never the same twice: you may have to work with bland batches, but don’t needlessly drown a good batch–let the flavors speak for themselves!)  Ladle into cups or bowls, garnish and serve.

—E . J.  K E L L E Y

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