Fish Chowder for Supper
The vegetarian part of the family was coming home from three weeks in India—arriving late at night after a flight from Delhi to London to Boston, then the bus to Portland, and finally a fog-bound drive back along the coast. What to give them to eat? Something that would revive after the long journey, but not too much because a good night’s sleep is also required. Fish chowder was the only sensible choice—because we’re in Maine, because the vegetarians also eat fish, because it’s winter and a bowl of hot soup would be just the ticket.
I know people like to follow recipes but honestly fish chowder is something I’ve made so many times in my long life that I wouldn’t know how to write it down in proper Boston Cooking School style, a cup of this, a tablespoon of that. Here’s how I make fish chowder for 6 people, but first, here’s what you’ll need to make it in your own kitchen:
- A chunk of salt pork or slab bacon, about 2 inches by 2 inches; or for pesce-vegetarians (sometimes called pescetarians) 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- A large yellow onion, peeled, halved, and very thinly sliced
- A large russet potato, peeled and sliced or chunked
- Some fish stock or bouillon—1 or 2 cups
- a couple of bay leaves and a sprig or two of thyme
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- ½ pound fresh haddock, cod, or other meaty fish
- ½ pound finnan haddie (smoked haddock)
- 1 pound waxy potatoes (red Norlands, yellow Finns, or similar)
- 1 or 2 cups whole milk
- ½ cup cream
- a couple of tablespoons of unsalted butter
- some fragrant red chili flakes
I use slab bacon if it’s not too heavily smoked because I like the smoky flavor in the chowder. Salt pork is more traditional but it’s hard to find these days, especially with a streak of lean running through it. The chunk of pork should be cut into small dice or lardons. Of course, for the pescetarians, I use good olive oil.
If you don’t have any fish stock in your freezer, you can make it easily. Just collect fish heads and racks (bones with some flesh clinging to them) from the fish monger (or the fish counter at the supermarket), rinse them well and simmer in water with some bayleaves, maybe an onion, maybe some thyme sprigs, maybe some black peppercorns. Fish stock should never cook as long as a meat or chicken stock—half an hour to 40 minutes at a steady simmer will pull out all the flavor, after which you should strain the stock through a couple of layers of cheesecloth. Freeze it in small 1- or 2-cup quantities. It is great for any kind of fish soup or for a seafood risotto.
But back to the chowder. If you’re using meat, set the pork bits in a heavy soup kettle over medium low heat and cook, stirring, until all the fat has been yielded up and the bits are brown and crisp. Remove the bits and set aside. They’ll be a garnish for the chowder later on.
But I’m making a vegetarian chowder, so I just combine the olive oil with the onions in the bottom of that same big old soup kettle (mine is an ancient Creuset, chipped and cracked but still very useful). I melt or sweat the onions in the fat, which means over low heat, stirring fairly constantly for 10 or 15 minutes and never letting the onions brown. Then when the onions are totally limp, I stir in the russet potato pieces and the fish stock, adding water if necessary to cover the potatoes completely, also the bayleaves and thyme.
Now here’s a trick I learned from Maine’s master chowder maker, the very genial Sam Hayward of Fore Street restaurant in Portland. The problem with most restaurant chowders, is that they’re thickened with flour almost to the point of library paste. Disgusting! But still, you want a stew that isn’t too watery. So, as the russet potatoes cook down, they start to dissolve in the liquid and thicken it. You can help the potato pieces along by crushing them against the sides of the pot with your wooden spoon, but you don’t have to be too thorough about this because eventually they will fall apart anyway.
While the potatoes are cooking, cut the fresh fish and the finnan haddie into what’s usually called bite-size pieces. Of course, one person’s bite is another person’s mouthful so keep your diners’ mouths in mind when cutting. You can also peel and slice or cube the waxy potatoes—although you might prefer to keep the skins on. These could be white-fleshed Norlands, or yellow-fleshed Yukon gold or some kind of fingerling—the point being that they will not dissolve into the stew as readily as russets do.
Now that the potato has melted into the broth, add all the fish and the waxy potatoes, give it a gentle stir with your long-handled wooden spoon, and stir in the milk. The next part is the critical part: the heat under the pot must be kept very low. Do not let the chowder come to a boil—a gentle simmer is fine but a boil will turn everything into a mishmash of overcooked fish and potatoes. You want the result to be a milky fragrant stew with very discernable pieces of fish and potato floating in it. In Maine we say the chowder should “set” for a couple of hours before serving. I thnk this is a good idea. In the old days they used to have a place on the wood stove that would keep the chowder warm enough but not let it come to a boil. Be advised with your own stove—which you know better than I do. Sometimes I just leave the chowder on the stove, with the hope that the heat from all the other cooking going on will help the chowder set up. Other times, I try with a flame-tamer over the burner to keep it at the lowest possible simmer. Or I just turn the heat on and off under the pot every now and then. But it is entirely true that a chowder that has set tastes infinitely better than a chowder fresh from the stove.
When you’re finally ready to serve, add the cream and again just bring the liquid up to a simmer. Add a dab or two of butter to float on the chowder. I also like to sprinkle a little dried hot chili pepper on top—Turkish pepper flakes or piment d’Espelette are excellent if totally unorthodox, never before known in a Maine kitchen but adding a gentle bit of spice.
And there you are–substantial but not too filling, delicious but also full of good, healthful ingredients, old-fashioned but elegant in its rustic manner, and totally welcome for fish-eating vegetarians.