In his delightful autobiography, The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, Jacques Pepin describes his years working at Howard Johnson’s. He deeply admired Howard Johnson, who he called "charismatic, powerful and soft-spoken," a straightforward businessman open to new ideas. Pepin and his wife had dinner with him on his yacht one summer evening, and were embarrassed that the chairman of the board served them himself.
“Fried clams and New England clam chowder were popular menu items at Howard Johnson’s, and I soon learned to love them,” wrote Pepin, who now lives in Madison, Conn. The chowder was made in 3,000-gallon amounts, but he reproduced the taste with this recipe – “when a bit of Howard Johnson’s nostalgia creeps in.”
5 quahog clams or 10 to 12 large cherrystone clams
4 cups water
4 ounces pancetta or lean, cured pork, cut into 1-inch pieces (about ¾ cup)
1 tablespoon good olive oil
1 large onion (about 8 ounces), peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces (1-1/2 cups)
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice (2-1/4 cups)
1 cup light cream
1 cup milk
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Wash the clams well under cold water, and put them in a saucepan with 2 cups of the water. Bring to a boil (this will take about 5 minutes), and boild gently for 10 minutes. Drain off and reserve the cooking liquid, remove the clams from their shells, and cut the clams into 1/2 –inch pieces (1-1/2 cups). Put the clam pieces in a bowl, then carefully pour the cooking liquid into another bowl, leaving behind any sediment or dirt. (You should have about 2-1/2 cups of stock.) Set aside the stock and the clams.
Put the pancetta or pork pieces in a large saucepan, and cover with the remaining 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, and boild for 30 seconds. Drain the pancetta, and wash it in a sieve under cold water. Rinse the saucepan, and return the pancetta to the pan with the oil. Place over medium heat, and cook gently, stirring occasionally, for 7 to 8 minutes. Add the onion and garlic, and continue cooking, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the flour, mix it in well, and cook for 10 seconds. Add the reserved stock and the thyme, and bring to a boil. Then add the potatoes and clams, bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to very low, and cook gently for 2 hours.
At serving time, add the cream, milk, and pepper, bring to a boil, and serve. (Note: No salt should be needed because of the clam juice and pancetta, but taste and season to your liking.)
Read more about Howard Johnson's in our story, Howard Johnson's: From 2 Restaurants to 1000 and Back.