With minor variations, this is a typical chowder from Maine on the north-eastern seaboard of the USA, The word ‘chowder’ comes from the old French chaudron, a large pot in which the fishermen would stew whatever they did not sell for their supper. Precisely when milk was first used in America, rather than fish broth, is not known but it was probably in the eighteenth century.
Here I have used a roux to thicken the cooking liquid, in place of the traditional cracker crumbs. I have also added a glass of dry sherry to give a slight edge to the creamy texture of the dish. The addition of chopped chives as a garnish is not traditional, but they add a light taste counterpoint which enhances more than just the appearance. I also prefer to add the fish in large chunks just before serving, so they come to the table lightly poached. The simplicity of both the ingredients and the cooking technique belies the complexity and subtlety of the finished product.
Any firm-fleshed white fish can be substituted for cod. Variations on the theme soon become obvious. A few peeled and deveined raw prawns increase the luxury of the dish, while clams - either fresh or canned - make a sympathetic addition. Mussels, previously cooked as for moules marinière, are also delicious in the soup.
Prepare the fish: towards the thick end of the fillet you will find some large bones on one side. Cut these out. Skin the fish: hold the fillet by the tail end and just beyond your fingers cut down gently at an angle of 45 degrees until the edge of the blade is in contact with the skin. Run the knife at the same angle along the skin while retaining a firm grip on the tail end. The flesh will come easily away from the skin leaving you with a compact fillet Cut the fillets into portion-sized pieces (I like to keep these fairly chunky rather than bite-sized).
Peel and finely chop the onion • Peel and dice the potatoes into
Put the large stew pan over a medium heat and sauté the bacon lardons in butter or oil until the fat has run out from them and they are nearly crisp.
Add the onions and fry until translucent. Do not allow them to brown. Add the diced potato and turn until coated and shiny. Sprinkle over the flour and stir. Pour in the sherry, stirring all the time and after a minute add the milk and bay leaf. Turn down the heat and simmer, stirring from time to time until the potato is just cooked. It should still be in separate cubes but starting to soften. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste.
Holding Point - the dish can be held at this point in the fridge for several days. If you do reheat gently and slowly to serve.
To finish: remove the bay leaf and add the chunks of fish, pushing them gently beneath the surface. The fish will cook very quickly and is done when the flesh turns an opaque white (about 3 minutes).
Place a piece of fish in each bowl and ladle over the thickened potato broth. Using scissors, chop over some chives. Serve immediately with good bread.
© 1993 Alastair Little. All rights reserved.