Martha’s Vineyard and New England Clam Chowder

by: Emily Monaco

Perhaps it’s the swimsuit issues of fashion magazines that have already started to grace newspaper stands, or maybe it’s that glimmer of warmth in the air, the suggestion that maybe the days of scarves and sweaters are on their way out, but with Memorial Day quickly approaching, my thoughts tend to turn to the beach. I’ll be spending all of August, like so many, tanning and swimming in the ocean, but it’s a little too early for that now; nevertheless, the beach is what I’m thinking of, and there’s at least one I can be sure is perhaps even more beautiful at this time of year: while there are dozens of gorgeous beaches all over the United States, for some reason, Memorial Day immediately reminds me of New England.

There’s something about the beaches that dot the shoreline of Massachusetts that capture the essence of what it is to be just on the edge of spring and summer. For just a moment, after the bone-chilling winters so cold that you can’t imagine standing outside for more than ten minutes, much less taking a leisurely walk along the shore, and just before the scorching, humid days of summer, there’s a perfect moment when the beaches are still cool enough to need a light sweater, and the waves lapping the shore feel like they’re just for you.

The island of Martha’s Vineyard, immortalized in too many films to count for its allure of a mysterious lost paradise, is just one of those places. The town of Aquinnah, formerly Gay Head, is the perfect place to visit now, before it’s flooded with summer beach-goers in just a few short weeks, and a solitary walk along the Vineyard’s coastline wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the town of Aquinnah.

Aquinnah’s cliffs are made of clay and are nearly orange in color; they stand out even more against the waves. I love to take a walk alongside them when they’re tranquil and empty; it’s the perfect way to quietly allow spring to end and summer to begin.

That being said, it’s still chilly enough in Massachusetts that a bowl of this local specialty — creamy New England chowder with local seafood — is more than welcome upon returning home. Classic recipes put clams center stage, and while purists may disagree, I firmly support the idea that you don’t need to feel limited by the traditional name of the soup. The Vineyard has dozens of local fishmongers selling local, fresh fish and seafood; I like Menemsha Fish Market (formerly Poole’s) in Chilmark, which has low prices and some of the freshest products in a friendly, family-run store. Ask the knowledgeable salespeople behind the counter what’s fresh, and throw whatever you like into this chowder: mussels, clams, shrimp, squid, even denser white fish will stand up well. Traditional versions use more cream; feel free to add more if you like, but I find that just a touch of it allows the fish to speak for itself, and when it’s this fresh, there’s no reason to make it any other way.

New England Seafood Chowder

 3.5 ounces bacon, diced
1 onion, minced
2 tsp. salt, plus more to taste
1 Tbsp. butter
3 Tbsp. flour
1 cup milk, warmed
3 cups clam juice or fish stock, warmed
2-3 potatoes, diced
10 ounces fresh seafood (mussels, clams, shrimp, fish) Note: 10 ounces is the yield weight; if using shellfish in the shell, you will need more. Let the vendor know the yield weight, and they’ll be happy to help you.
1 tsp. fresh thyme, chopped
1 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
4-5 Tbsp. heavy cream

Heat about a half-inch of water over high heat in a heavy-bottomed stock pot with a lid. Add the bacon and allow it to start to render its fat. Add the onion and salt and sauté, stirring occasionally, until both the bacon and onion are browned. The bottom of the pan will be covered in brown bits.

Remove the pan from the flame and add the butter and flour. Stir vigorously to combine and lift some of the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Place the pan back over the flame and reduce to medium-low. When the flour has cooked for about a minute or two, slowly begin to add the milk, stirring all the while. It should thicken up nearly immediately, but if it doesn’t continue stirring until it does. Add the clam juice and potatoes, and stir to combine. Cover the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked but still firm.

You have two choices with regards to how to prepare the seafood. Firstly, you can cook it directly in the soup, leaving it in the shells, which turns the soup into more of a seafood stew. You can also cook the seafood separately and shell it, adding the individual pieces of seafood to the stew once they’ve already been cooked. Either way, pick over the shelled seafood like mussels and clams, discarding any that are already opened or have broken shells. Rinse them well and debeard the mussels and devein the shrimp if necessary. Clams and white fish take the longest to cook through at about 10 minutes, while mussels take about 5, and shrimp and squid no more than 2. Add the seafood accordingly, so that the stew will have cooked in total 30 minutes from the time you added the potatoes, or cook the seafood separately and add to the stew, removing it from the heat immediately.

Once the seafood has been cooked and added to the stew, remove the pot from the heat and add the thyme, pepper and cream, as well as more salt to taste. Serve with Boston brown bread.

Emily Monaco is native New Yorker, living and writing in Paris since 2007. She loves discovering new places and, of course, their local cuisines! Read about her adventures in food and travel at or follow her on Twitter at @emiglia