Last Saturday, I was one of eight tasters to judge the Famous Clam Chowder Contest that kicked-off Montauk’s 32nd Annual Fall Festival, hosted by the Montauk Chamber of Commerce. This competition is as fierce as the thousands of chowder lovers who lined-up—with commemorative mugs in hand—an hour before the 24 anonymous local restaurants started ladling more than 4,000 cups of their best New England and Manhattan style chowders. It was a perfectly brisk autumn day and nothing is better to warm the heart and soul than sampling two-dozen Long Island clam chowdas!
Actually, it would have been a feat to properly judge all the chowders, so we were split into two groups; I was assigned to the Manhattan style. A number was inscribed on the many cups of chowder that were placed in front of us; we had no idea which restaurants were in the competition.
I was fortunate enough to sit next to Silvia Lehrer, a culinary professional/teacher, avid practitioner of locavorism and the author of Savoring the Hamptons; a beautiful cookbook featuring everything delicious about the North and South Forks of Long Island. I figured if there is anyone who knew a thing or two about chowder it would be Silvia.
Let the judging begin!
The chowder was flowing as we sipped, slurped, chomped and judged each chowder on: appearance, body, balance of ingredients and depth of flavor. There were many varieties of this tomato-based chowder: spicy and chunky, clammy and briny, bacony and tomatoey, herby and brothy. John’s Pancake House (as we knew it #17) encompassed all of these flavors beautifully and placed 1st for their Manhattan style. Who would have ever thunk that a pancake house could win? The potatoes, carrots, onions and celery were perfectly sized and cooked, the clams were chewy (not like shoe leather) and sweet, the tomato broth was a lovely base, not too thick with a hint of bacon and fresh herbs.
Entry numbers were being buzzed around for all those people who were last but not least to try the chowders. By the end, all the pots were empty—not a clam in sight.
The winners for each style of chowder
Other Restaurants who competed are:
Zum Schneider, West Lake Clam and Chowder House, Trails End, The Coast, Swallow East, Surfside Inn, Sloppy Tuna, Sausage’s Pizza and Pastabilities, Pizza Village, O’Murphy’s Pub, Montauk Yacht Club Gulf Coast Kitchen, Manucci’s, La Brisa, Harvest on Fort Pond, Hampton Seafood Company, Duryea’s Lobster Deck, 360 East.
I was so inspired by all the competitors that I had to make my own clam chowder; trying to recreate John’s Pancake House winning recipe purely on memory and taste. The clams I used are chowder hard clams that were raked in the Moriches Bay by Mattituck Shellfish in East Quogue.
Manhattan Clam Chowder Recipe
- 3 dozen chowder hard clams
- 4 cups of onions, finely chopped
- 3 cups of carrots, cubed
- 3 cups of celery, finely chopped
- 3 cups of potatoes, cubed
- 1 cup of pancetta, small cubes
- 10 cups of homemade clam broth
- 2 bay leaves
- ¼ teaspoon of red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon of cracked pepper
- 2 28oz cans of plum tomatoes
- 2 sprigs of thyme
- ¼ cup of vermouth
- 2 tablespoons of parsley, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil
- Wash the clams really well under cold running water —If you have access to an outside faucet you may want to clean them there; scrubbing off any sand and mud with a brush or scouring pad.
- Place clams in a large pot, and add enough water to cover clams by 2 inches. Cover pan and place over medium heat and bring to a low simmer.
- As the clams begin to pop open, transfer them with tongs to a large bowl. Discard any clams that have not opened after 20 minutes.
- When cool enough to handle, remove each clam from its shell, leaving the adductor muscles on either side of the clam attached to the shell. Transfer the clam meat to a bowl/plate and discard the shells.
- Strain the broth from the pot through a fine sieve lined with a paper towel or cheesecloth set over a large pot or bowl.
Note: The meat and broth can be refrigerated separately for up to 1 day before using. This yielded 20 cups of broth, you will only need 10 cups for the chowder. Freeze the extra broth for later use.
- Finely chop half the clam meat; set-aside. The remaining half cut into longer strips; set-aside
- In a large soup pot, sauté the pancetta over medium heat until the fat renders and gets crisp. Remove the pancetta and reserve the fat in the pot to sauté the vegetables.
- Add olive oil, red pepper flakes, cracked pepper, onions, carrots and celery; cook for 5 minutes until well coated. Then add the vermouth and deglaze all the bits for 2 minutes.
- Add the potatoes, and the canned plum tomatoes; as you add the tomatoes to the pot, crush them with your hands one-by-one and then add the remaining liquid from the can.
- Then add the clam broth, the finely chopped clam meat, bay leaves and thyme; simmer with the lid on for 45 minutes.
Note: Do not add salt as the broth naturally adds enough.
- When the potatoes are soft, add the remaining clam meat and turn off the heat.
Yields: 12 servings.