1 hour plus purging
There may be no better example of a food that defines the heart and soul of a region the way New England clam chowder does. Born of rugged surroundings and raised in simplicity, it’s a bowl of heft, community and culture. (Not to mention tender clams and salty, fatty pork bits.) One ladle of the briny, creamy broth and you’ll be booking a trip to the rocky northern coast in no time.
See Cook’s Note on how to clean fresh clams.
for the clams and clam broth
Bring the water, wine, thyme and garlic to a simmer in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the clams, cover and simmer until the shells start to open, 10 to 15 minutes depending on the size of the clams. Give them a stir about halfway into the cooking time. As they open, remove to a bowl, letting any juices in the shells drip back into the pot. Once they are all cooked, strain the broth through a cheesecloth-lined mesh strainer into a bowl or large measuring cup. Reserve the broth, there should be 1½ to 2 cups. Shuck the clams when cool enough to handle, and then chop them. Cover loosely and refrigerate while you make the chowder.
Wash and rinse the Dutch oven and return it to medium heat. Melt the butter and cook the pancetta, stirring frequently, until the pancetta begins to brown and crisp, about 5 minutes. Add the onion and continue to cook and stir until it becomes translucent, lowering the heat if necessary to prevent burning, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the potatoes, stir to coat and then add 1½ cups of clam broth. If the potatoes aren’t covered by the broth, add a little water, or extra clam broth if you have it, to cover. Bring to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are tender, adjusting the heat to keep at a simmer, about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and gradually pour in the half-and-half, stirring until heated through, a few minutes. Add the chopped clams and stir a few times just to heat them up. Sprinkle with chives before serving.
Clams live in the mud and take in sand as they breathe, so they need to be cleaned inside and out. First, use a stiff vegetable brush to scrub the shells under cold running water. Then put the clams in a large bowl and cover with plenty of salted cold water (1/3 cup salt to 4 cups water). After 30 minutes, lift out the clams and rinse again. If there is more than a speck of sand in the bottom of the bowl, repeat the purging again.