New England Fish Chowder

Somewhere back in the early years of prepared foods, someone set a precedent for clam chowder so thick it would mound in the spoon like soft mashed potatoes. This gluey, starch-stiffened version now fills the bill in many fish joints up and down the eastern seaboard.  It’s heavy on calories and a far cry from the original fish chowders that were mainstays for early settlers.

Fish chowders are meant to be soups, really soupy, the kind that will soak into crackers or toasted bread. They should be as nourishing as whole meals with vegetables, fish and broth simmered together in a heady steam redolent of pepper and thyme. A homemade, old-fashioned fish chowder will quickly transport you to the seaside. With today’s access to fresh fish, you can bring coastal breezes into your own kitchen any day.

You don’t need more than onions, celery, potatoes and fish for good chowder, though the broth that brings it together helps a lot. A homemade fish stock is preferable, but your basic chicken stock will suffice. The next time you stand at a counter where whole fish have been filleted, you might ask for some bones on the side. Or the next time you steam a lobster or a Dungeness crab, break up their shells, add some water and simmer them for 15-20 minutes, then strain off the flavorful broth. On a recent visit to Cape Cod, after I had retrieved the broth from steamed clams and lobsters, I selected a hunk of local bluefish and returned to the cottage to cook up a delicious chowder.

Fish Chowder

6 slices bacon cut in small dice
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium onions, peeled and diced (3 cups)
2 ribs celery diced (1 cup)
4 cloves garlic minced
¼ chopped Serrano chili or pinch crushed red pepper (optional)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dry thyme
3-4 Yukon potatoes cut in small dice (3 cups)
4 cups fish or chicken stock
1 lb. cod, bluefish or other fresh white fish skinned and cubed
½ cup cream or half and half
salt, pepper
Parsley, chives, radishes for garnish

In a large soup pot, gently fry bacon until golden and rendered. Remove bacon to small dish and retain 3 tablespoons bacon fat in the pot. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and sweat onions and celery until translucent. Add garlic, chili, thyme and sauté until fragrant. Add potatoes, stock, salt to taste. Cover and simmer until potatoes are tender. (At this point, if you prefer a thickened chowder, use a slotted spoon to remove some of the potato cubes on a plate and mash with a fork. Scrape the mashed potato back into the soup and swirl to combine.) Add the cubed fish and simmer five more minutes or just until the fish is cooked through. Add cream, reserved bacon and correct seasonings with salt and pepper as needed. Garnish with chopped parsley, chives and radishes for a bit of color.

Makes 8-10 first course servings or 4 main course portions.

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