Cedar Key, a charming town three hours north of Tampa Bay that once dubbed itself “the Venice of America,” ships farm-raised clams all over the country. So it’s a great place to indulge in steamed clams, fried clams and, of course, clam chowder.
My husband and I hadn’t come here just for clams. After spending a weekend celebrating a friend’s birthday, we returned to this unspoiled fishing village on our own for a restorative visit. Cedar Key pleasures are simple but sufficient: Wander down the two-block main street, stopping at the visitors’ center to bone up on the town’s 19th-century heyday as a center for oystering, shipping and manufacture of red cedar slats for pencils. Check out the excellent artists’ coop. Walk the abandoned rail line, now given over to songbirds and native plants. Watch sunsets over the island-strewn bay.
One day was spent in the company of Captain Carl Robinson, who sped us
across flats and into gorgeous estuaries in his air boat. We caught a zillion redfish, all of which failed to meet the 18-inch limit, but they were feisty and that’s what counts with fishing. Capt. Robinson is the fourth generation of fishermen in his family and figures he’ll be the last–his son decided to take up house painting instead.
The mixed seafood platter at Tony’s was tasty–fried fish, steamed clams, broiled sea scallops and other delicacies I could imagine eating on the coast of Italy. What the restaurant is really known for, though, is its “World Champion clam chowder,” winner of a national competition three years in a row. I’ve eaten it, but…eh. I have to say that rich, creamy chowder is not to my taste.
So, instead of stocking up on Tony’s chowder, I bought a 12-pound sack of Cedar Key clams to take home. I had a choice of small, medium and large–and took the advice of the guys on duty, who insisted that the larger ones, though a little more expensive, are a better value.
Then I set out to make clam chowder. The so-called Manhattan kind, with tomatoes but no béchamel sauce or cream. Inevitably, I headed in an Italian direction, using olive oil, wine and a good brand of imported plum tomatoes. And why use salt pork when pancetta would be so much better?
The clam chowder was good and, as I hoped, light enough for the shellfish flavor to shine through. No need to return to Cedar Key if I make it again–the town’s clams are available here in St. Petersburg. But I have plenty to other reasons to go back.
Clam Chowder Any Italian Would Love
Serves 4 to 6
5 pounds medium or large clams (about 4 dozen)
Kosher or sea salt
1/2 cup white wine
2/3 cup chopped red onion
2 ounces thick-cut pancetta or bacon, diced small
1 tablespoon olive oil
2/3 cup chopped canned plum tomatoes, with some of the puree
1 large Yukon Gold or other boiling potato, diced small
1 large stalk celery, diced small
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley
1. Scrub the clams to remove sand. Combine 2 quarts water with 1 tablespoon salt in a large bowl. Stir until it dissolves. Add the clams (add more water if necessary to submerge). Let stand for 2 hours to expel any sand.
2. Lift the clams out of the water and combine in a large skillet with the wine and 1/2 cup water. Steam, covered, removing them as the shells open. Cool, remove the clams with a spoon and roughly chop them.
3. Sauté the onion and pancetta with the olive oil in a medium saucepan until lightly browned. Stir in the tomatoes, potato and celery. Using a fine-mesh strainer, strain the clam broth into the saucepan and add enough water to cover the vegetables with a few inches to spare. Bring to a simmer and cook for a few minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Continue cooking until the potato is tender.
4. Stir in the chopped clams and parsley (if using) shortly before eating. Serve with water crackers or, better yet, taralli.
Note: For a thicker consistency, stir in a little cornstarch dissolved in water toward the end of cooking.