The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Fish Chowder My Way

November 15th, 2011 · 2 Comments · Posted in dinner, Recipes

One of our favorite meals: fish chowder

I spent a few days in Maine recently and ate as much of the local seafood as I possibly could, cooked at a friend’s “cottage” (Not!) on Casco Bay near Freeport.

Can I just say, the seafood market on the dock in Portland has some of most beautiful goods you’ll ever see? Fresh and glistening, the fish there are something to behold. I swear, I think I could live in Portland just for the quality of its seafood. I might even be willing to give up red meat, especially considering how much lower the price of fish is there.

My aim was to make a pot of fish chowder for a small group. It’s said that for family chowder, cod is the preferred fish. But when company’s expected, opt for haddock. This I gladly did. The fillets were thick and firm and the price embarrassingly low–just $8 a pound. The resulting chowder was sublime, so I decided to replicate it here in D.C. for a dinner party over the weekend.

Imagine my chagrin when I saw that the same haddock was selling at Whole Foods for $22–not $8–a pound. Could I justify such as expensive chowder? Chowder is supposed to be subsistence food for fishermen. While I pondered that I found myself at the newly renovated Eastern Market on Capitol Hill shopping for beef brisket. Looking around, I noted considerably cheaper fish for sale at the nearby Southern Seafood Market stall.

At first, I didn’t even notice the haddock for sale, the fillets were so small and not the pearly white I was used to. When I told the salesperson about my experience on the dock in Portland–how wonderful the haddock there was–his shoulders slumped and he sighed. “They [the seafood wholesaler] don’t even offer us that.” It had never occurred to me that the selection and quality of seafood could vary so much from one shop to the next based on the priorities of a wholesaler.

When I explained that I planned to make a chowder, the man brightened and directed me to a display of what was labeled “chowder” fish. These were remnants of cod and haddock fillets–not pretty, some of them a bit mangled–and when I saw the price–just $3.50 a pound–I decided to give them a try. How could you not at that price? (When I asked if the “chowder” fish sold much, the man replied, “We sell out every week.”)

Long story short, the chowder was excellent and nobody noticed that the fish in it cost only $3.50 a pound. We served it in our big bistro-style bowls garnished with parsley, slices of a fine country-style bread (not oyster crackers) on the side. I think we drained a couple of bottles of chardonnay with that.

My recipe for fish chowder is pretty loose. Remember, this is a dish that likely originated on a boat, where the fisherman used the simplest possible ingredients–onion, potato, fish. We’ve become accustomed to milk or cream in our chowder, and in most cases so much flour or other thickener you can stand a spoon in it. What a shame. For my cooking liquid, I prefer a simple fish stock, either a commercial stock such as Kitchen Basics or one you make yourself   from fish bones and aromatics. The very best, of course, is the one you make yourself, and if you have access to fish bones I highly recommend it. Making fish stock is pretty simple and cooks fairly quickly.

I also don’t use any thickener in my chowder, just some heavy cream near the end for flavor and to give it that traditional chowder look. I use the cream we get delivered from our local dairy. It practically is thick enough to stand a spoon in.

For cooking grease and flavor, chowder traditionally was made with salt pork. Being salted, the pork kept fine in the rudimentary conditions of a 19th century fishing boat. But salt pork isn’t always easy to find these days. I opt for pancetta or even a smoky bacon. Cut a couple of thick strips of bacon into 1/4-inch slices and lightly brown these at the bottom of a heavy soup pot. They will give off some fat, but I add about three tablespoons of butter as well–I like my chowder with some butter flavor. A bowl of good chowder, I think, should have little pools of melted butter floating on the top. Toss in an onion, peeled, quartered and cut into this slices, season liberally with salt and cook over moderate heat until the onions have softened. Add two large Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, quartered and thinly sliced.

At this point I add four cups of seafood stock to the pot, plus a bottle of clam juice and a small fistful of fresh thyme sprigs tied together with a bay leaf. Bring the pot to a boil, then lower the heat and cook gently until the potatoes are just cooked through. Remove the herb bundle. You can make the chowder up to this point hours or even a day ahead. Just before you are ready to serve it, bring the pot back to the boiling point, add 1 cup heavy cream and 2 pounds fresh haddock cut into 1-inch pieces (or a little larger–they do shrink).

As soon as the fish is cooked through, ladle the chowder into large, warmed bowls and garnish with some chopped parsley. Serve with slices of crusty bread and creamery butter.

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