Fireside Clam Chowder: (Almost) Instant Hygge

I took my mother to a Christmas luncheon for her widows’ group yesterday. It was held at a lovely old tearoom downtown—a real Atlanta institution—with gilted fixtures and age-spotted mirrors and crimson roses on every table. The restaurant is located in the former coach house of a magnificent Shutze mansion, and after the luncheon we drove around and had a look at the front of the house—a gorgeous classical façade with a terraced lawn sweeping down to iron gates. The gates just happened to be open, so I nudged my car inside, pretending for a fanciful moment that we were invited guests (and that I was wearing era-appropriate beads and ermine, of course).

“Nothing like pretending to be tourists in your own town,” I said to my mother with a laugh. “But I’ll bet we’re on camera somewhere.”

The Swan House

Sure enough, a moment later a security guard pulled her golf cart alongside my car and regarded us with a decidedly unhospitable expression. I smiled and backed out of the drive—but I wasn’t sorry we’d had a peek.

Our hearts were warmed by the sweetness of the event we’d just attended; by the sight of florists decking mailboxes and gates along one of the swankiest streets in the city; by the King’s College Christmas music on the stereo. But it took us forever to get home; traffic and rain conspired to make the trip back to the suburbs feel more like a gauntlet than a drive. We saw two wrecks on West Paces alone. When I finally pulled into my own driveway, I was ready for a nap. Or maybe even just bed.

But it was four o’clock, and there was just time to kindle a fire in the den, put the tea kettle on, and rest my soul for a bit by the light of the Christmas tree before evening barn chores called and supper had to be thought of. I sank into the coziness, vowing to “Amazon Prime” the rest of this holiday, and watched the evening fall as I sipped my tea. Funny how the most ordinary moments are often the ones that seem too good to be true.

Thus recovered, I tended the animals, fed the dogs and cats, lit some candles and turned on one of my favorite Advent albums. It makes me happy to welcome Philip into an atmosphere of warmth and calm at the end of the day (instead of my default tearing about to polish off as many tasks as I can!), and I wanted a suppertime that would reflect that lovely gathering-in feeling of the season, feeding both our bodies and our souls. Something we could eat by the fire without any fuss—and something I could whip up in 30 minutes or less. Despite my little respite, I was bone-tired, and all I wanted to do was relax, chatting with my husband and maybe sipping something festive.

Clam Chowder, I thought. The funny thing is, I didn’t grow up eating clam chowder. I don’t have a host of hygge-laced memories attached to it. In fact, I always regarded it as “Yankee food,” and I didn’t get the big deal—that is, until I went to Boston in my early twenties and sampled the famous version perfected by Legal Seafood. I still think it’s Yankee food, but in the most affectionate way possible. And that’s exactly what I wanted last night.

I didn’t have a stand-by recipe, and nothing in my books met the requirements of time and pantry provisions. So I cobbled together my own version, and jotted it down while the soup simmered. Twenty minutes later, my husband walked in the door to the scent of bacon and onions sizzling and the sight of an uncharacteristically laid-back Lanier. He smiled, and pulled a couple of red glass highballs out of the cabinet to mix up what’s known around here as “Christmas Cheer”—one part gin to two parts orange juice, on the rocks, with a dash of cinnamon for good measure. I switched the soundtrack from Benedictine nuns to the Doris Day Christmas record Laura had recommended earlier that day, and we ate by the fire, with soup bowls on our knees and sleeping cats strewn about the room and dogs tussling happily on the rug.

Funny how the most ordinary moments are usually the ones that seem too good to be true…

Lanier’s Fireside Clam Chowder        

¼ pound bacon, chopped
¾ cup onion, chopped
2 stalks of celery, minced (I actually hate celery, but I love it in this soup! I tend to go light on it, however, so add more if you like.)
16 oz. bottled clam juice
2 tablespoons flour (We’re a gluten-free household, and while I don’t use a lot of GF flour, I really like this brand.)
3 cups Yukon Gold potatoes, chopped (The great thing about YG is that you don’t have to peel them!)
1 ½ teaspoons sea salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
3 6.5 ounce cans chopped clams (I know, I know—canned. Trust me, it will be okay. And you will be in a good mood when this soup is served.)
2—3 cups milk (I used a cup of milk and a cup of half-and-half, because that’s what I had in the fridge.)
1 tablespoon butter

Brown the bacon in a large pot until the fat is rendered. Add the onions and celery and cook over medium-high heat until the vegetables are opaque, 5-10 minutes. Add the clam juice, then quickly whisk in the flour. Simmer for a moment or two, whisking constantly, until the broth is thickened somewhat, then stir in the potatoes and the seasonings. Reduce to low, cover, and cook until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, drain and rinse the clams. When the potatoes are done, stir in the clams, the milk and the butter and warm (without letting it boil!) for about 5 minutes. Remove the bay leaf, dish it up in some fireside-friendly bowls, and serve immediately (that is, after you get your husband to take photographs of it for the blog).

This soup was so delicious we both ate two bowls. Pairs well with Christmas Cheer, shearling slippers, and twinkle lights.

Serves 4

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  1. Nothing wrong with Yankee food, now! I was raised on clam chowder–both New England-style and Manhattan (with tomatoes). Thanks for the reminder about the singing nuns. I am blaring the gorgeous track, “Gabriel’s Message,” in my headphones as I sit in a coffee shop and write a post for GH called “Christmas in Connecticut” about my Christmases past. I think the people at the next table can hear–I’m getting odd looks. Oh, well, won’t be the first time.

  2. My default is the same as yours, in that I tear off to accomplish as many task as I possibly can — taking pleasure in the ordinary moments is something I still have to work on. Thank you for such a beautiful post!

  3. Beautiful post. It calmed my soul just reading of your lovely evening. Oh, and my first taste of clam chowder was at Legal Seafood in Boston – the one on the wharf. Happy weekend to you both; you have blessed my life daily this holiday season.

  4. I so enjoyed your post. My husband’s family are from Rhode Island, and so I’ve learned that there is a third kind of clam chowder–the Rhode Island style, which is a broth. My mother-in-law makes the best of that kind that I’ve ever tasted!
    When I thought about the term “hygge,” and Christmas reading, my thoughts turned to the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace and their lovely depictions of the Christmas season. I think I’ll have to pull a few out and re-read those chapters!

    1. Christie, that Rhode Island clam chowder sounds delicious. 🙂

      And, oh, how I LOVE the Besty-Tacy books–you’ve made me want to pull them out again myself. Maud Hart Lovelace reminds me of Laura Ingalls Wilder in that she can communicate so much, and evoke such a vivid sense of place, with relatively simple language. I admire her tremendously.

  5. My husband and I tried your clam chowder recipe this evening! It was delicious. Unfortunately, it was not cold enough to justify a fire (and we decided against turning the AC down so we could build one.) But nonetheless, thank you for sharing! This was a calm introduction to my first attempt at chowder.

    1. Yay! Glad you enjoyed it, Rachel! 🙂

      (And I don’t want to admit how many times we’ve had a roaring fire in the fireplace with the windows open! December in Georgia can be rather unpredictable. ;))

  6. Dear Lanier, I’m many months late adding my thanks here. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed your clam chowder several times since you posted this. Thank you! Also, Christmas Cheer is good in January, and February, and even March 🙂 (Though one-to-one gin & oj is a little stiff for me. I go two oj to one gin. To each her own!)

    1. Heehee…Philip makes the cocktails around here, and he informed me with a laugh that my 1-to-1 ratio would be stiff by anyone’s standard. 😉 He says yours is more like it! But I’m so glad you’re enjoying it, as well as the clam chowder! You’ve made me want to whip up a batch this weekend. 🙂

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