A rich, flavorful, thick-with-ingredients chowder is a Mainer’s birthright, or at least ought to be. I am convinced that in all likelihood, chowder was the first dish concocted in Maine by non-natives, very likely by the same European fishermen who brought codfish caught and salted on the Grand Banks ashore to dry in Maine fishing stations along the coast. I’ll bet anything that they were not roasting beef and baking apple pie.
I know that I have groaned aloud before in these pages, deploring the state of modern chowder-making. I have appealed to anyone who still knows how to make a proper chowder that they seize the moment with the next susceptible young person they meet up with and teach the art before we forget what chowder can be.
Chowder, like many dishes, has variations on its basic structure. Chowder traditionally begins with salt pork, dried out to make fat on which cooks layer onions, potatoes, fish (usually a white fish like haddock or cod) or shellfish, then add water and finally milk.
The kind and quality of the ingredients makes the difference in chowder flavor, and personal taste is a guiding principle. For instance, I like it when the potato cooks apart a little and helps thicken the chowder. Others like to use a waxier potato cut into cubes, cooked so each is a bit independent of the rest of the ingredients.
For routine family chowder, I use evaporated milk to finish. Others might prefer light cream or half and half or even merely milk. For a special occasion, I might go the cream route.
Some cooks acquire fish bones which they roast in the oven and with which they make a fishy broth they add to the pan for the preliminary cooking. Some folks add herbs to chowder but I am a salt-and-pepper-only cook.
You might like to use only one sort of fish or shellfish in your chowder, but I like mixes sometimes of different sorts of fish, even salmon, and a seafood chowder with several kinds of shellfish such as clams, lobster, scallops and shrimp is a real treat. Generally, I do not buy so-called chowder mixes at the big supermarkets, being suspicious of the origins and quality of the flabby-looking little pieces I too often see there. I would trust a mix from a fish market.
Everyone knows that chowder is thick and it is here that sometimes the whole proposition goes awry. Two hundred years ago, and for a while even after potatoes were included universally in chowder, common crackers soaked in milk and laid in with the fish helped thicken it up. While the crackers might cook apart a little, the result was chowder densely packed with ingredients, but not gluey. Some recipes, even ones from the 1800s, call upon the cook to sprinkle a little flour into the pot over a layer of fish or potato. The better chowders assiduously avoid a gravy or saucelike consistency. They are brothy, a fishy, milky soup full of fish, potato and onions.
The following is not a recipe as much as a set of flexible guidelines for building a chowder. When you eat good chowder at a friend’s or relative’s house, inquire about the method they use, and see if there is not some little trick you can pick up to add to your method. In fact, if you have some unbeatable piece of advice that you’d like to share, send it to me and I will post it here.
My basic chowder is built with one medium potato per person, plus a third of a pound or so of fish per person, and one medium onion for every two people. A small piece of salt pork, about an inch square, finely chopped, per person is sufficient, or a tablespoon of oil or sometimes bacon fat. The fat from pork or bacon gives a nice flavor, which is why I prefer it.
Some like to cube potatoes, but I belong to the slicing school of thought, and I usually slice the potato so that I have a thin edge and a thick one. The thin edge cooks off and helps thicken the chowder.
Yields 3 servings
1- to 2-inch square of salt pork, finely chopped, or a couple tablespoons of butter, vegetable oil or bacon fat
2-3 medium potatoes
1 medium onion, chopped
1 pound of fish or shellfish
Water or fish stock
14-ounce can of evaporated milk, or up to two cups of half-and-half or whole milk
Fry out the salt pork until you have crispy bits which you can remove and set aside or leave in. Add the onion, potatoes and fish in layers. Add water or stock until you can barely see the liquid through the ingredients. Cook until the potatoes are fork tender then add milk or half and half. Heat until the milk is hot through, but do not allow it to boil. Taste and adjust seasonings with salt and pepper. Chowder is usually better if it stands overnight in the fridge and is eaten the next day.
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