A lovely warm bowl of chowder has to be one of the best winter meals going around. If the vongole (clams) you buy have not been purged, place them in a solution of cool water and sea salt (30-35g salt to each litre of water) for a few hours, changing the water a couple of times at room temperature (if you refrigerate them they'll close up and won't "spit out" the sand).
1¼ cups vegetable stock
1½ kg fresh vongole, purged
¾ cup white wine
1 small leek
1 large desiree potato
1 tbsp olive oil
40g unsalted butter
3 eschalots, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
pinch of saffron threads
freshly ground black pepper
¾ cup single cream
½ bunch chives, chopped
lemon juice, to taste
For the herb toast
100g unsalted butter, softened
1 small clove garlic, finely chopped
2 tsp chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 tsp chopped dill
2 tsp chopped chives
½ tsp finely grated lemon zest, no white pith
pinch of sea salt
4 thin slices ciabatta bread
1. Heat vegetable stock in a small saucepan. Heat another larger saucepan over a high heat. When hot add the vongole, pour over the white wine, then add hot stock. Cover with a lid and boil for 1-2 minutes, until the clams open. Remove from the heat as soon as they open, as they will quickly shrivel and become chewy if overcooked. Drain into a colander with a bowl underneath to retain the liquid. Cool the vongole, and put aside a few shells for a garnish. Pick the meat from the remaining shells and reserve.
2. Cut leek lengthways in half. Wash well, then cut into 1cm squares. Peel and cut potato into 1cm cubes.
3. In a large pan, heat oil and butter, add eschalots, garlic, leek and salt. Gently cook on medium-low heat until soft, about 10 minutes. Add reserved liquid and bring to the boil then simmer for five minutes. Add diced potato, thyme, saffron and freshly cracked pepper. Simmer for 10 minutes until the potato is tender.
4. For the herb toast, place all ingredients except the bread in a small bowl. Mix together well.
5. Remove soup from the heat, check seasoning, then add the cream. Add pepper, to taste.
6. Preheat an oven grill and toast the ciabatta on one side until golden. Turn, evenly spread over the herb butter then grill until golden and crisp.
7. Place vongole meat into four bowls, spoon over the broth and garnish with reserved vongole shells, chives, a squeeze of lemon juice, freshly ground pepper and grilled herb ciabatta.