I grew up eating this soup. It reminds me of cold winter nights in my Mom’s kitchen, when it was made with haddock or hake and sometimes included corn, and of summer lunches in my Nana’s kitchen, when it might be made with perch. It was often accompanied by homemade biscuits, which immediately qualified a chowder meal as something to look forward to, and almost always by homemade pickles, mustard sours if I had my way. It’s almost silly that I don’t make chowder more often, considering my wholly positive memories of it from childhood. When I analyze why it’s not a staple in my kitchen, there are two factors I come back to: it seems like something you make when you need to feed a crowd, and I rarely have a crowd to feed, and the fish I associate with “good chowder” is not available in Seattle. Both of those excuses have been soundly debunked by my most recent batches of fish chowder. It’s going to be all chowder, all the time at my house from now on.
Fish chowder is a relatively inexpensive way to feed your family a hearty meal, which is why I think of it in terms of volume. The recipe can be doubled or tripled with ease and ingredients are flexible depending on what you have handy. I remember stock pots full, which may be an exaggeration of a childhood memory, but is equally likely to be truth, for my family. My recipe is scaled down but, luckily, not too much, because, with my first spoonful, I remembered the best part about making fish chowder: leftover fish chowder! I am all about fast and easy, but this is a recipe to make the day before, maybe two days before, so all those wonderful flavors mix and mingle and elevate your soup to Chowder. With time to rest, the aromatics flavor the stock and fish, the creamy broth plumps up the potatoes and all the flavors combine and become best friends. The leftovers are, in some ways, the goal of this recipe. So, while it does or can feed a table full of folks, make sure you have enough for the cook to get a reward leftover bowl.
Now, let’s talk about ingredients. I do not have easy access to hake, haddock or perch in Seattle, but it’s not a problem because I do have access to Alaskan cod, rockfish and halibut, when I’m feeling decadent. I am going to try my hand at salmon chowder this year, and think that any decently meaty, not-too-oily white fish would make a wonderful chowder. I use chicken stock but plan to try fish stock next time, now that I have a good source (the local fishmonger); vegetable broth or even water would work just as well. Some people add carrots, or corn, or both; milk works for this recipe, and so does cream. As for bacon, it’s optional but recommended, for the nice saltiness if nothing more. The chowder I grew up with sometimes had salt pork, if I remember correctly, so use that if you have it (though not as much) and leave the bacon out altogether (compensating with a pinch of salt) if you are going the pescatarian route. I find that even people who are iffy about fish enjoy chowder when it is prepared with a mild white fish like cod, lots of aromatics– celery, onion, bay leaves, thyme– and cream, which gives such a luscious consistency.
Fish chowder is versatile, filling and delicious, and I truly believe the most challenging part of this recipe is waiting overnight to finish and serve it for dinner. (I stand behind my instructions to do so– the wait is worth it.) Whether you grew up in New England eating fish chowder or have never had a bite, I hope you will give this recipe a try. What kind of fish do you use in chowder? Any special ingredients that make your recipe different than mine? I imagine there are as many regional and familial variations of chowder as there are fish in the sea– and I bet I would be happy to try a bowl of each.
Fish Chowder (serves 6-8)
- 4 – 5 slices of bacon
- half a medium yellow onion, diced (about 3/4 c.)
- 2 – 3 stalks of celery, washed and diced
- 3 – 4 medium red potatoes, unpeeled, cut into 1″ chunks
- 1 tsp. dried thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- abundant black pepper, preferably freshly ground
- 4 c. chicken, fish or vegetable stock
- 1 lb. Alaskan cod or similar, skin & bones removed, cut into 2″ chunks
- salt to taste (optional)
- at least 1 c. whole milk or cream
Day 1: In a large stock pot over medium heat, cook the bacon until it is starting to crisp and most of the fat has rendered. Remove the cooked bacon to a paper towel-lined plate or rack set over a plate to cool; pour off all but 2 T. of bacon fat. (If you’re not using bacon, or don’t have 2 T. bacon drippings, use canola or grapeseed oil to make up the difference.) Add the celery and onions and cook, still over medium heat, until fragrant and starting to soften; this take about 7-10 mins. You don’t need to brown. Add the potatoes, thyme, bay leaves and a good pinch of pepper to the onions & celery and stir to combine. Cook for 2-3 mins. and then add about 1/2 c. of your stock to the pot; no need to measure, just splash it in. Use a wooden spoon to slowly scrape any good brown bits of bacon, onion, etc. off the bottom of the pan and into your stock. Add the rest of the stock and increase the heat to medium-high until you have a slow boil. Take the heat back down to medium, add the fish, cover the pot and simmer for 20 mins. Test the potatoes with a fork: they should be just tender enough to pierce with a little resistance. Remove the pot from the heat, cool for 10 mins. or so and add half of the milk or cream and your reserved cooked bacon, which can be crumbled or roughly chopped. Transfer to a refrigerator-safe container (sometimes I refrigerate in my stock pot…) overnight.
Day 2: Remove your soup from the refrigerator and put it back into your stock pot, if it’s not there already. Add the remainder of the milk and slowly reheat over medium-low heat. You don’t want to boil the milk or cream, and you don’t want to stir too often– the lovely chunks of fish will all be broken apart. When your chowder is warm enough to serve, taste and add salt if necessary (sometimes your bacon adds all the salt you need). I usually add a lot more pepper at this point, a personal preference; you may also adjust the consistency by adding more cream or milk. Remove the bay leaves and ladle into bowls. Serve with bread, rolls or biscuits and some kind of pickled vegetable. Save at least one bowl for the next day’s lunch.