Entrees

North Carolina Down East Clam Chowder

Fred Thompson / September 7, 2016

This flavorful chowder trades the traditional thick creamy base for whole clams still in the shell. 

No, not Down East Maine, but North Carolina, all along its Outer Banks and Southern Outer Banks, is home to this style of chowder. Somewhat akin to the chowders of Rhode Island, this style is more about the clams than the thick, cream-based chowders of New England.

If you're really familiar with this type of chowder, you may lay a slice of white bread in the bowl and ladle the chowder over it. The bread dissolves and thickens the chowder.

Clam chowder with whole clams cooked in a cast iron dutch oven.

Prep Time

10 minutes

Cook Time

25 minutes

Servings

10 - 12

Ingredients

  • 1/4 pound salt pork or slab bacon, sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 4 cups water, or half water and half clam juice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 quart coarsely chopped chowder clams (see Kitchen Note)
  • 4 cups diced (1/2-inch) potatoes
  • 2 dozen small clams in the shell, scrubbed (farm-raised from North Carolina are perfect; see Kitchen Note)
  • Milk, half-and-half, or light or heavy cream as or if desired
  • Sliced white bread (optional)
  • Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley for garnish
  • Oyster crackers
Clam chowder with whole clams cooked in a cast iron dutch oven.

Preparation

  1. Cook the salt pork in a 5-quart cast iron Dutch oven over medium heat until crisp. Remove the pork and discard, reserving the rendered fat in the pot. Add the onion and cook until tender (but don’t let it color), about 5 minutes, stirring a few times. Pour in the water, then add the salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Add the chowder clams, reduce the heat to low, and slowly simmer, uncovered, until the clams are tender, about 1 hour.  
  2. Add the potatoes, increase the heat to medium, and simmer until they are tender, about 20 minutes. During the last 10 minutes, add the clams in the shell and cover the pot. Add the milk if using right before serving but give it enough time to warm (a couple of minutes usually works).  
  3. If you like, set a slice of bread in the bottom of each large shallow serving bowl, then ladle in the chowder, making sure to get a couple of the shell clams. Sprinkle with parsley and serve with oyster crackers.


Kitchen Note: With their robust sea flavor, quahogs, the largest member of the clam family, make for the best chowder clams. Buy them and shuck the clams yourself or use frozen, which are an excellent alternative. Stay away from canned clams. And while North Carolina might not come to mind when you think of clams, the state has a growing clam farming industry in the sounds and estuaries around the Outer Banks, and offers a steady supply to the entire East Coast. “It’s more that possible that the last cherrystones or littlenecks you supped on came from our waters,” says Fred.


Variations: You don’t have to limit yourself to clams; feel free to add most any kind of seafood to this chowder. Fred likes a combination of clams, shrimp, rockfish (wild striped bass), and scallops. Start the chowder as directed; add the shrimp and fish along with the hard-shell clams. The scallops go in right at the end.


You can also make this without clams; instead use shrimp, scallops (bay scallops are great), oysters, and/or firm white fish fillets. After cooking the onion and adding the water and/or clam juice, let the broth simmer for about 30 minutes. Add the potatoes, then add your choice of seafood 10 minutes later (except for scallops, which go in at the end). “No matter which way you choose to make it, this chowder, a pan of cornbread, and some slaw make for real good eating,” declares Fred.
Fred Thompson

Contributed By

Fred Thompson

Fred Thompson is a cookbook author, a resident of Raleigh, North Carolina and publisher of Edible Piedmont. 

North Carolina Down East Clam Chowder

By Fred Thompson

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 25 minutes

Servings: 10 - 12

Ingredients

  • 1/4 pound salt pork or slab bacon, sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 4 cups water, or half water and half clam juice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 quart coarsely chopped chowder clams (see Kitchen Note)
  • 4 cups diced (1/2-inch) potatoes
  • 2 dozen small clams in the shell, scrubbed (farm-raised from North Carolina are perfect; see Kitchen Note)
  • Milk, half-and-half, or light or heavy cream as or if desired
  • Sliced white bread (optional)
  • Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley for garnish
  • Oyster crackers
North Carolina Down East Clam Chowder

Preparation

  1. Cook the salt pork in a 5-quart cast iron Dutch oven over medium heat until crisp. Remove the pork and discard, reserving the rendered fat in the pot. Add the onion and cook until tender (but don’t let it color), about 5 minutes, stirring a few times. Pour in the water, then add the salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Add the chowder clams, reduce the heat to low, and slowly simmer, uncovered, until the clams are tender, about 1 hour.  
  2. Add the potatoes, increase the heat to medium, and simmer until they are tender, about 20 minutes. During the last 10 minutes, add the clams in the shell and cover the pot. Add the milk if using right before serving but give it enough time to warm (a couple of minutes usually works).  
  3. If you like, set a slice of bread in the bottom of each large shallow serving bowl, then ladle in the chowder, making sure to get a couple of the shell clams. Sprinkle with parsley and serve with oyster crackers.


Kitchen Note: With their robust sea flavor, quahogs, the largest member of the clam family, make for the best chowder clams. Buy them and shuck the clams yourself or use frozen, which are an excellent alternative. Stay away from canned clams. And while North Carolina might not come to mind when you think of clams, the state has a growing clam farming industry in the sounds and estuaries around the Outer Banks, and offers a steady supply to the entire East Coast. “It’s more that possible that the last cherrystones or littlenecks you supped on came from our waters,” says Fred.


Variations: You don’t have to limit yourself to clams; feel free to add most any kind of seafood to this chowder. Fred likes a combination of clams, shrimp, rockfish (wild striped bass), and scallops. Start the chowder as directed; add the shrimp and fish along with the hard-shell clams. The scallops go in right at the end.


You can also make this without clams; instead use shrimp, scallops (bay scallops are great), oysters, and/or firm white fish fillets. After cooking the onion and adding the water and/or clam juice, let the broth simmer for about 30 minutes. Add the potatoes, then add your choice of seafood 10 minutes later (except for scallops, which go in at the end). “No matter which way you choose to make it, this chowder, a pan of cornbread, and some slaw make for real good eating,” declares Fred.

Recipe by Fred Thompson for Lodge Cast Iron at http://www.lodgemfg.com/recipe/north-carolina-down-east-clam-chowder