Soups and stews are two of our favourite ways to make a one pot meal; the protein, vegetables, fats and carbohydrates all cook together in one pot, melding complimenting flavours and textures and pretty much resulting in a complete, delicious and healthy meal. And at the heart of a good soup or stew is the stock, be it meat, fish or vegetable; a good stock is full of nutients and provides the base for your one-pot meal. When it comes to making a stock for a chowder or fish soup, we like to keep it simple; whenever we have a feed of lobster we freeze the shells, heads and tails and antennae, and when we have shrimp we peel the shell and freeze them along with the heads. When we have enough, in it all goes into the stock pot along with the usual mirepoix, resulting in a flavourful stock perfect for the next batch of fish soup or chowder.
Another little hint to get a hit of fish essence into your chowder is to save the water from your cans of tuna. Most of us drain our canned tuna of its water and discard it, but it is full of flavour and goodness, so why not collect it in a re-sealable container and keep it in the freezer? The next time you make chowder just pop out the frozen “tuna juice” into the soup pot for a quick boost.
Growing up in Prince Edward Island I became a huge fan of homemade fish chowder and clam chowders; they are on most restaurant menus, and are a staple supper in most homes, often served with fresh-baked biscuits and a simple side salad. And at almost every house the chowder was slightly different; different recipes, maybe a little more heat, perhaps a pinch of Old Bay Seasoning, some like to thicken it up with starch while others prefer it on the thinner side….one of the joys of being a chowder nut is noticing the subtle nuances each cook brings to the table.
Maritime chowders are made with milk or cream, not tomato, and are bullish on potatoes, usually rather large chunks that will fill the whole spoon. Finely chopped onions, carrots and celery are pretty much de rigeur in a fish chowder, and many prefer to sauteé the onions in diced bacon (lardon) while others prefer butter. Fresh mussels and clams, still in the shell are an added and welcome bonus, but canned clams are just ducky too. The fish should be a good and firm, not too oily; halibut, haddock, cod, rockfish, whitefish and arctic char are all great for chowder. The fish should be cut into large pieces and put into the pot towards the end of the cooking, when the potatoes are almost soft. If you put the fish in too early it will break down into small pieces and your chowder will have a sort of mushy quality to it. Just simmer the fish for about the last fifteen minutes of cooking, remove from heat and stir in the cream. Same with fresh shellfish; add it towards the end of the cooking and when the shells open you’re good to go. Garnish with some fresh herbs like chopped tarragon, parsley, dill, thyme or chives.
Here is a simple recipe for some down-home fish chowder with clams. Serve it with herb bread, toasted sliced baguette or hot buttered angel biscuits and molasses on a dreary fall night and you will all become chowder nuts.
* note: if you don’t have Old Bay Seasoning here is a recipe to make it at home
2 tablespoons butter or 2 strips of bacon, chopped into small pieces
1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 large carrot, finely chopped
1 large celery stalk, finely chopped
3 cups fish stock, veg stock or water
3 medium white or Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into eigths
2 bay leaves
1 can of clams
1 ½ lbs cod fillet or other firm fish, cut into 3- inch pieces
optional: ¼ cup instant potato flakes or 2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
1 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper
tarragon, chives, parsley, dill or thyme for garnish
In a large saucepan melt 2 tablespoons butter or 2 strips of bacon chopped into small pieces. If using bacon, remove all but 2 tablespoons of fat once the bacon is cooked. Sauteé onion, garlic, carrot and celery in butter or with the lardon until soft. Add stock or water and potatoes and bring to the boil. Reduce heat and add bay leaf and simmer until potatoes are almost done, about 15 minutes. Add fish and clams and the clam juice in the can. Let simmer for another 15 minutes or so. If you want to thicken it up, lower heat and stir in instant potato flakes, or 2 tablespoons of cornstarch that has been dissolved in ¼ cup cold water. Stir gently until soup begins to thicken then stir in cream. Add Old Bay Seasoning, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish and serve.