Featuring fresh Cedar Key littlenecks.

When it comes to clam chowder, mine’s good. But I’ll be the first to admit that the chowder at Tony’s in Cedar Key is number one. A three-time International Award winner in the Great Chowder Cook-Off at Newport, Rhode Island is hard to beat. Tony’s is so good they won’t let Chef Erik Junklaus enter anymore.

Seafood is always a good starter for a holiday meal, and milk-and-potato-based clam chowder fits the bill, especially if it’s made with fresh Cedar Key clams. Since the net ban in the 1990s, Cedar Key has become the epicenter of commercial clam farming in Florida, and perhaps the nation. The local hard shell clam is a quahog species, and is farmed in several sizes.

The most popular for everyday cooking and eating is probably the littleneck, at 7 to 10 clams to the pound. Cedar Key clams ship well and are available in many specialty seafood shops statewide. And according to Lee Deaderick at Gainesville’s Northwest Seafood, they’ll usually keep a week in your home’s refrigerator. However, if they’re open and don’t close when tapped, consider them dead and inedible.

While many recipes for clam chowder call for canned clams, using fresh Cedar Key clams really makes a difference, taste-wise. Cedar Key clams are remarkably free of sand and grit, but a two-hour soak in fresh, cool water will ensure they’re totally clean. The clams quickly pump the water through their systems and expel the debris. The next step is the shucking.

That’s an easy task, provided you have the right tools—a clam knife and a glove for your hand. Clam knives are sharper than those used for oysters, allowing you to quickly pry open the shells and cut the adductor muscles.

Once you learn the location of the “sweet spot” along the clam’s shell, the process is relatively simple. Just be sure to save the liquor, or juice, that comes out with the meat of the clam. Like oysters, small clams are eaten whole when served raw or steamed, but for chowders, a rough chop is preferred, especially if the clams are fresh. FS

Second Best Clam Chowder

6 slices bacon, diced
1 large onion, chopped
1 cup water
4 cups peeled russet potatoes, cubed
2 tsp. salt
½ tsp. ground black pepper
3 cups half-and-half
½ stick unsalted butter (4 tbsp.)
3 cups Cedar Key clams, chopped

In a large pot, cook bacon until crisp. Then add onion and continue cooking until transparent. Add water, potatoes, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are tender. Add half-and-half, butter and chopped clams (with the liquor) and continue to cook over low heat for about 5 minutes. Serves 8.

Milk-and-potato based chowder is generally termed “New England style,” while tomato-based chowder is called “Manhattan style.” The recipe for the less hearty, red Manhattan chowder involves adding finely chopped carrots and celery to the onion and bacon mix, using fewer potatoes and substituting crushed tomatoes and white wine for the half-and-half and butter. The clams are the same in both—and both are worthy of a fine cool-weather meal.

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