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Light But Creamy Clam Chowder

24 Littleneck or Manila clams scrubbed
1 c -Cold water
2 ts Vegetable oil
2 md Onions; chopped
2 Celery stalks trimmed and chopped
1 Carrot; halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 tb Minced ham
1 lg Garlic clove
2 Fresh thyme sprigs
4 Parsley sprigs
3/4 ts Salt
1 lb Boiling potatoes; peeled, quartered lengthwise, and thinly sliced
16 oz Clam juice (about)
1 c Lowfat milk (1%)
Salt & pepper
Hot pepper sauce
2 tb Chopped fresh parsley
1 Green onion thinly sliced on the diagonal
Fresh thyme leaves or dried

Place clams and water in heavy large Dutch oven. Bring water to boil. Cover pot and steam clams just until they open, about 5 minutes. Transfer clams to bowl. Discard any that do not open. Reserve steaming liquid. Strain juices exuded by clams into bowl and steaming liquid through strainer lined with damp paper towel and reserve.

Heat oil in same pot over low heat. Add onions, celery, carrot, ham, garlic, thyme, parsley sprigs and salt. Cover and cook vegetables. Cover pot. Simmer until potatoes are tender, 15 minutes.

Discard herb sprigs. Transfer half of vegetables and 1/2 vegetable cooking liquid to processor and puree. Return contents of work bowl to pot. Add milk and bring soup almost to simmer; do not boil. Adjust consistency by pureeing more vegetables for thicker chowder or adding more clam juice for thinner chowder. Remove clams from shells and add to chowder. Season with salt, pepper and hot sauce. (Can be refrigerated 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Reheat gently before continuing.)

Add chopped parsley and green onion to chowder. Ladle into bowls. Sprinkle with fresh thyme leaves (or crumbled dry) and paprika.

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