Clam Chowder & Cohabiting

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Let’s put it out there: Cohabiting can bring out the worst in a human being. Coexisting can get hairy. You see things you don’t want to see, hear things you don’t want to hear, and sooner than later, parts of yourself you’d rather reserve for a very select group of people are all out in the open, and the people who were strangers yesterday are suddenly either best friends or mortal enemies. I live with three other people, and on occasion, I’d like to pull out my hair or shout like a toddler or flush the toilet while one of them is showering, or do all of that all at once while I double-dip my spoon into a carton of ice cream that doesn’t belong to me. I am certain that each of the people I live with have had similar fantasies. If they haven’t, I guess I’ve got some word-smoothing to do should any of them ever read this.

I’ve lived with enough different people to understand that my habits can drive a person nuts, too. Take Patrick, my first roommate in New York, an Irish man nearing his 60’s who worked off-hours delivering newspapers and lived in a rent-controlled apartment in the heart of Chelsea. We hit it off during our first meeting at his kitchen table, which was lucky considering I had three days to find a place to live.

“Ya got charisma,” He told me. I moved in three days later.

Within those first few days in Chelsea, I managed to offend Patrick at least twice. I brought home a frozen pizza (“Ya living in New Yawk! Ya got a pizzeria on every cawna, girl! Whaddya doin?“) and tried to watch Grey’s Anatomy on the black and white set in the living room (“Aw no. We only watch educational programs in this house.”)

He returned the favor by drinking any alcohol I brought into the house before I’d opened it, leaving his bottle of Valtrex next to the fruit bowl on the kitchen table, and neglecting to mention that mice would be making a daily appearance upon that first meet-and-greet when we were both attempting to sell our best personal qualities.

But I was living in Manhattan! On my own! I thought this was all par for the course.

Patrick adored The Beach Boys, marijuana, and listening to The Beach Boys while smoking marijuana on the couch, where he sat naked from the waist down.

I moved out two months later, but The Beach Boys had nothing to do with it. Neither did the pot.

There are a lot of things I like about sharing a space. I like sharing a pot of coffee and the sounds of other people living. I like our family dinners, those that are spontaneous and those we plan, and I like the sounds of football when it’s on in the living room.

A couple of weekends ago, my roommates and I had a group of friends over for dinner. We asked everyone to bring a soup, or a wine, or bread. Graeme made delicious tomato lentil that he pureed with such gusto, he broke his new immersion blender. Matt brought the best loaf of walnut-studded bread. Natalie made smoked salmon and capers with toast and cream cheese. Mike made a gumbo that was even better the next day.

And we made New England Clam Chowder, all four of us, with equal effort. Next time, I’d add more clams as the original recipe suggests. This is the clam chowder I’ve been waiting for. And our family dinners? They’re pretty great, too.

New England Clam Chowder adapted loosely from Emeril Lagasse

3-4 pounds small clams, scrubbed and rinsed

6 slices bacon

1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped celery

2 teaspoons minced garlic

2 + teaspoons dried thyme

2 bay leaves

2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes

2 cups heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

salt to taste

Bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a stock pot. Add the clams, cover, and cook for 5 minutes. Uncover the pot and stir the clams with a wooden spoon. Cover and cook 5 to 10 minutes longer or until most of the clams are open.

Transfer the clams to a big bowl and strain the broth twice through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl to drain out the sand. The recipe says you’ll be left with 8 cups of clam juice. It seems like we were left with less than this, but it worked out fine.When the clams are cool enough to handle, remove them from their shells and chop in 1/2 inch pieces. Set the clams and broth aside.

Cook the bacon in a large heavy pot over medium heat until crisp and the fat is rendered. Reserve 2 tablespoons of fat and discard the rest. Add the 4 tablespoons butter, onions, and celery and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, thyme, and bay leaves and cook until the vegetables are soft and wilted, about 3 minutes, but don’t brown them. Add the potatoes and the clam broth and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer until the broth thickens slightly and the potatoes are very tender, about 30 minutes. (For a thicker broth, mash some of the potatoes against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon). Remove from the heat and pick out the bay leaves. Stir in the clams and cream, and season with pepper and salt to taste.

Cover and set the chowder aside for an hour to allow everything in the pot to get acquainted. When you’re ready to eat, place the pot over low heat and slowly reheat, but be careful not to boil. Serve hot.