The Secret of Soffritto

Clam diggers on the Pacific coast

Clam diggers on the Pacific coast

Every year during the clam tides, diggers flock to the clam beds near Ocean Shores, Washington, to dig their limit of 15 tender, succulent razor clams. The determination of these people is admirable because there can’t be a much more miserable thing to do at 2am than stand in freezing water and rain getting covered in mud up to your armpits. Of course the prize is arguably great – razor clams are delicious. But this display of obsession has surprised me in the past because there isn’t that much you can do with clams, that I know of, other than deep fry them into clam strips or make clam chowder, neither of which hold a world title for most sophisticated dish.

It’s also hard to find a ‘master’ recipe for clam chowder. Perhaps because there really isn’t that much to it no great chef has troubled to put their name to a recipe. All recipes are essentially the same – fry some onions, add some stock and potatoes, simmer, add chopped clams. Simmer again and eat. To this there are countless variations of preference. Add cream or don’t. Add some herbs. Add garlic. If you are in Manhattan, add tomatoes. I even saw a recipe that required the soup be thickened with instant mashed potato flakes. When my wife decided the time had come to make some truly great clam chowder, I wondered if there was any way to really elevate the dish and make it worthy of exhaustion and hypothermia. My theory: soffritto.

Soffritto is a mirepoix of finely chopped vegetables which forms the basis of soups, stews and sauces in Tuscan cuisine. This was more like it – a bit of research into mirepoix revealed a delightful wealth of argument and invective through the ages, a bit like when I tried to track down an authentic recipe for gravlax. Soffritto, the Tuscan version, contains carrots, celery and onion in a 1:1:2 ratio, and is not to be confused with the Spanish sofrito (tomatoes, onions, garlic, green bell pepper), Portuguese refogado (onions, garlic, tomatoes), Dutch soepgroente (leek, carrot, celeraic) or the Cajun ‘holy trinity’ (onion, celery, green bell pepper). As you can see, these are all variants on the same idea. Mince some aromatics, saute them. However, get the region wrong, and you are no longer considered a real chef. This tiny first step of humble vegetables is what lets you know you are doing authentic Tuscan (Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Cajun) cookery.

I picked Tuscan. I mostly did this because nobody adds carrots to clam chowder, and I can never resist the opportunity to do something wrong.

The recipe… well, my wife did all the rest, because she was searching for “a certain flavour idea” as she put it. This is what she says when she knows what she wants to taste in her imagination, and she sets about inventing it. She doesn’t seem to need a recipe to do it, which baffles me. But from what I observed, here is what she did for her simply spectacular, worthy of the rain-and-mud razor clam chowder:

Leslie’s Clam Chowder (for two)

Soffritto

1 leek

1 carrot, peeled

1 celery stalk

Mince the vegetables into very fine dice – take your time. In a heavy, cast iron pot, heat a splash of olive oil over medium heat. Add the aromatics and saute gently for a long time until they are thoroughly softened, but don’t let them burn. (Incidentally, I read recently that the reason celery is essential in soup bases is not because of its inherent flavour, but because it contains a compound that accentuates the taste of other flavours, a bit like the way MSG works. I wondered.) Pretty soon you will be a soffritto convert – the kitchen will fill with amazing smells, and the little toasty bits of vegetables taste delicious off a wooden spoon. Now for the real fire!

soffrito

Chowder, stage one

2 rashers bacon

4 small red potatoes

1 (8 oz) bottle clam juice

2 cups chicken stock

Dice the bacon and crisp it up nicely in a frypan. Reserve the bacon and add the drippings to your softened soffritto. Peel and dice three of the potatoes. To the soffritto, add the clam juice, chicken stock and potatoes. Simmer until the potatoes are well and truly soft, then mash them in the pot. You may want to add more stock if it is getting too thick. Dice the last potato (unpeeled) and add it to the pot, along with 1 tablespoon of the reserved bacon.

Chowder, stage two

1/2 tablespoon hot paprika

1 teaspoon red chilli flakes

1 tablespoon sherry

1/2 cup cream

1/2 lb lovely, lovely razor clams, cleaned and diced

cilantro, to garnish

Add the paprika and chilli flakes and simmer until the last potato is soft (again, feel free to add more liquid if necessary). Add the sherry and cream. Add the clams and reserved bacon and simmer 15 minutes. Taste, add more cream if desired. Serve with a sprinkling of cilantro and crackers for dipping.

8 comments to The Secret of Soffritto

  • Everything about this sounds delicious. Now if only I could convince my vegetarian boyfriend to break down and let a little seafood into his life….

  • Mmmm… I’ll have to try making Soffritto. I’ve been very much into soups lately. :)

  • War Pig

    Sounds delicious. I use the same trinity as you in my shrimp étouffée now, even if it does put me on the personna non grata list of Cajun cooks. I’m just not all that fond of bell pepper. Although I have no access to fresh razor clams I’ll have to try it with whatever “fresh” clams I can get at Kroger’s. Thanks for not shutting the website down, by the way. After 4 months I was getting worried.

  • Muzhik

    I’ll definitely have to try this, if only because my daughter (the cooking school dropout) gets upset with my lack of culinary adventurousness. Then again, it will have to be sans clams, because my seafood consumption is limited to three things: shrimp (that have been properly breaded and fried), tuna (when mixed along with Cream of Mushroom Soup into a proper north-midwestern casserole) (Tuna-Chipper Casserole was MY FAVORITE growing up) and any fish that can be heavily breaded, deep fried, and served with lots of ketchup — fish-sticks may or may not count.

    BTW — glad to see the new entry. Reading about Hawaiian cooking was getting boring, particularly with the cold and snow we’ve been having.

  • Do it Chris! It’s surprisingly amazing.

    Sorry for the hiatus guys. For myself, I blame brain death caused by winter.

  • Muzhik

    @Daniel, sorry to hear about the brain death, although since you’re clearly alive, I’d have to say it was hibernation, not death. The only thing I can say is, man, you really need to evolve. Being warm-blooded takes more energy than being cold-blooded, but it makes for a much more interesting night-life.

  • War Pig

    Brain death here in Ohio is a possibility with the record-breaking cold winter we’ve had this season. We’re already ahead of a normal full winter’s snow by a foot and we have the last of February, all of March and the first part of April to go (we can get heavy snows here as late as mid-April – we did in 1987).

    Ugh.

    Stews and soups have sustained me, that and home baked goods, with the occasional Flemish carbonnade or coq au vin tossed in for good measure.

    I love my dutch oven.

  • AmericanCanadien

    From a northwest-coast cultural perspective, to do anything but fry a razor clam is a travesty. Taking their lives is an art form. Out of respect for the finest of bivalve one only uses butter and fire. The capturing and cooking of a razor clam is a spiritual journey. Please use lesser bivlaves for chowders, soups, stew and culinary experimentation.