My first job out of college was in Boston, in the financial district downtown. My local friends did their best to initiate this wide-eyed Californian into New England traditions of every sort, especially food.
We feasted on as many menu items as we could afford at the Union Oyster House and the No Name Restaurant, and $5/lb lobsters I would buy from the Italian fish monger across the street from where I lived in the North End.
One dish I could never get enough of was "chowdah". Clam chowder, fish chowder, seafood chowder, whatever, I loved it.
The word chowder is thought to come from the French "chaudiere", which is basically a large pot or cauldron used to cook stews like this. There are many regional varieties of chowder.
New England style chowder is white, with cream and potatoes. Traditional New England recipes call for starting out rendering fat from salt pork and then making a roux with flour.
Other recipes skip the salt pork, but use a lot of butter. Most recipes called for a highly flavorful fish stock.
For this particular fish chowder, which we all agreed turned out exceptionally well, we are using extra virgin olive oil and butter instead of bacon or salt pork. We are skipping the flour and are instead using cream and the starch from the potatoes to thicken the stew. In place of fish stock, we are using flavorful clam juice instead.
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon butter
- 2 medium yellow onions, chopped (about 2 cups)
- 1/2 cup dry white wine (optional)
- 3 large Yukon Gold potatoes (about 1 1/4 pounds), peeled, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
- 2 cups clam juice
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon Old Bay (optional, can use a little paprika and a dash of cayenne)
- 1 1/2 to 2 pounds cod*, or other firm white fish, pin bones removed, fillets cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- * Here in the west we get Pacific Cod, considered a sustainable fish by Seafood Watch. Pick the best, most sustainable option available to you.
Sauté onions in oil and butter, add wine:
Heat oil and butter in the bottom of a large pot (6-qt) on medium heat. Add the onions and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.
Add the wine, if using, and turn up the heat, cook, uncovered until the wine reduces by half. (If not using wine, add a 1/4 cup of water with the clam juice in the next step.)
Add potatoes, clam juice, spices, then simmer:
Add the potatoes, clam juice, bay leaf, thyme, salt and pepper, and Old Bay spice. (The potatoes should be just barely covered with the liquid in the pot. If not, add water so that they are.)
Bring to a simmer, then lower the heat to medium and cook, covered, until the potatoes are almost done, about 10-15 minutes.
In a separate pot, heat the cream until steamy (not boiling).
Add fish to soup, add hot cream:
Add the fish to the pot of potatoes and add the heated cream. Return to the stove. Cook on low heat, uncovered, until the fish is just cooked through, about 10 minutes.
Keep your eye on the heat! If you are using straight heavy cream you should be more easily able to avoid curdling, even if the soup starts to boil. But if you are substituting light cream, half and half, or milk, the mixture will likely curdle if it gets near boiling point (one of the reasons I like using straight heavy cream).
Keep the temperature so that it barely gets steamy, but not simmering.
When the fish is just cooked through, remove from heat.
Mix in the parsley. The flavors will improve if the soup rests 30 minutes before serving.
Serve with crusty bread or oyster crackers (not for gluten-free version).
Origins of Chowder great article with recipes from the 1700s and 1800s, from The Old Foodie
New England Chowder Compendium - online archive of historical chowder recipes dating back to the 1700s