The ocean plate

A Rhode Island menu.

By Adam Ried
April 10, 2011

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With influences that include Native American, Italian, and Portuguese and a strong focus on local seafood, Rhode Island is a small state with a big food heritage. There are no johnnycakes in this column, or dynamites either, but three of the state’s most iconic dishes are here: clam chowder with a clear, briny broth, stuffed quahog clams (“stuffies” in the local parlance), and the coffee-flavored frappes called coffee cabinets down south.

Rhode Island Clam Chowder

Serves 6

Adapted from 50 Chowders, by Jasper White, who points out that the lemon is unorthodox but delicious.

8 pounds littleneck, cherrystone, or small quahog clams, rinsed,

or scrubbed if necessary

4 ounces lean salt pork or blanched thick-cut bacon, cut into ½-inch pieces

2 medium onions, finely chopped

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme

2 cups bottled clam juice

or seafood stock

2½ pounds potatoes (5 to 7 medium-large), peeled and cut into ¾-inch chunks

1½ tablespoons lemon juice

Pepper (and salt, if needed)

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

In a large, heavy Dutch oven over high heat, bring 2 cups water to boil. Add half the clams, cover, reduce heat to medium-high and cook, turning clams once, until they open, 4 to 7 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer to a large bowl. Add remaining clams to pot and cook until they open, then add to bowl (discard any that have not opened); reserve broth (you should have about 4 cups). When clams cool, remove meats, rinse if necessary, chop roughly (you should have about 1¾ cups), and refrigerate until ready to use. Transfer broth to a tall, narrow container, let settle for about 10 minutes, and pour carefully into another container, leaving behind grit at bottom; cover broth and refrigerate until ready to use.

Wash out pot, add salt pork or bacon, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until browned and crisp, about 18 minutes. Pour off all but 1½ tablespoons of the fat (leave salt pork in pot). Add onions, bay leaves, and thyme, and cook, stirring frequently, until onions are softened, about 5 minutes. Add clam juice or seafood stock, reserved clam broth, and potatoes, adjust heat to medium-high, and bring to simmer (do not boil). Adjust heat to low, cover, and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes. Off heat, add chopped clams, lemon juice, and pepper to taste, and rest chowder for about 30 minutes for the flavors to meld. Remove bay leaves. Gently reheat chowder over medium heat (do not boil). Taste and adjust seasoning with pepper (and salt), if necessary. Add the parsley and stir to mix, and serve at once.

Rhode Island Stuffed Quahogs (Stuffies)

Serves 6

Quahogs tend to be muddy, so scrub them well before cooking. In fact, you may want to rinse the cooked clams again after removing them from the shells. Watch the pot as the clams steam, because they create foam that usually boils over. To be sure to end up with 12 stuffable shells, steam a couple of extra quahogs in case some crack in the pot.

6 quahogs, about 3 pounds, scrubbed well and rinsed

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 small onion, very finely chopped (about ½ cup)

1 small red bell pepper,

very finely chopped

(about ¾ cup)

1 small rib celery, very finely chopped (about ½ cup)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Pinch cayenne, optional

1¾ cups panko bread crumbs

¼ cup minced fresh parsley

1½ tablespoons lemon juice, plus lemon wedges for serving

Salt and black pepper

1 egg, beaten

In a large, heavy Dutch oven over high heat, bring 2 cups of water to boil. Add quahogs, cover, reduce heat to medium-high, and cook, turning clams once, until they open, about 10 minutes. Remove quahogs and reserve broth in pot. When quahogs cool, remove meats, rinse both meats and shells if necessary, and finely chop meats (you should have about 1 cup). Reserve meats and shells. Transfer broth to a tall, narrow container, let settle for about 10 minutes, and pour off and reserve 1/3 cup of it. (If desired, pour off remaining broth, leaving behind grit at bottom, and refrigerate or freeze broth.)

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. In a medium skillet over medium heat, heat oil until shimmering. Add onion, bell pepper, and celery, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 4 minutes. Add garlic, thyme, oregano, and cayenne, if using, and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 40 seconds. Remove skillet from heat, add chopped quahogs, panko, parsley, lemon juice, ½ teaspoon salt, and black pepper to taste, and stir to mix. Add egg and reserved 1/3 cup broth and stir to incorporate.

Mound a scant ¼ cup of mixture into each shell, place on baking sheet, and bake until piping hot and lightly browned, about 25 minutes. Serve at once with lemon wedges.


Stuffed Quahogs With Sausage

Follow the recipe for Stuffed Quahogs, with these changes:

1) Before adding the vegetables to the hot oil, saute 1 fresh hot or sweet Italian sausage (4 to 5 ounces) until no longer pink, about 3 minutes, stirring and breaking up into very small crumbles as it cooks.

2) Reduce panko to 1¼ cups and omit the ½ teaspoon salt added to skillet along with the quahogs.

Rhode Island Coffee Cabinet

Makes about 3½ cups

½ cup cold milk

¼ cup coffee syrup

8 medium scoops coffee ice cream (about 1 quart), softened until just melted

at the edges

In a blender, blend the milk and syrup thoroughly, about 10 seconds. Add the ice cream and pulse several times to begin breaking it up. With the blender motor off, use a flexible spatula to mash the mixture onto the blender blade. Continue pulsing, stopping, and mashing until the mixture is well blended, thick, and moves easily in the blender jar, roughly 30 to 90 seconds. Pour into glasses and serve at once.

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Coffee milk

While most of the country gulps down chocolate milk, Rhode Islanders prefer their milk flavored with the coffee syrup that can be found in almost every supermarket in the state (often next to an overstock of chocolate syrup). So popular is coffee milk, in fact, that it was named the official state drink in 1993.

Three popular brands of coffee syrup – Autocrat, Eclipse, and Coffee Time – are now all produced by Autocrat, a family-run Lincoln, Rhode Island, company dating to 1895. Generally, Autocrat is considered to be the sweetest, Eclipse to be stronger and less sweet, and Coffee Time to be the strongest of the three.