Monday, May 5, 2014

Culinary History: White Fish Chowder

A couple of months ago when I wrote my first blog post about chili, I described it as “practically a religion.” Well, I lived in Boston for six years and I can tell you that they take their clam chowder as seriously as Texans take their chili.  And, just like chili, it has a few agreed upon ingredients and a slew of disputed ones.  Hopefully an exploration of its history will help inform what this dish is at it’s essence so we can come up with some fun new variations on it.

The word chowder has its roots from the Latin calderia, which originally meant a place to keep things warm, but later came to mean a cooking pot.  We get the world cauldron from this root.  The dish, much like lasagne, came to be named after the vessel it was cooked in.  It originates on either side of the English channel in Cornwall in England and Brittany in France.  When fishing ships returned, their village had a cauldon ready for the fishermen to put some of their catch in it. The community donated various other ingredients and later it was served as a celebratory meal for the community.

Chowder came to America with the earliest settlers.  Originally it would have used preserved ingredients like salt pork and ships “biscuits” to add body along with whatever else they could get their hands on: birds, fish, or vegetables.  However, the abundance of quahogs (clams) in the new world led to this being the primary ingredient rather than fish.  The earliest known printed chowder recipe was in the Boston Evening Post in 1751 and by 1836 clam chowder was already being served in Ye Olde Union Oyster House, the country’s oldest continuously operating restaurant.

Herman Melville even wrote an entire chapter about chowder in Moby Dick, “Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favourite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition”

White Seafood chowders are very simple.  They all contain seafood, onions, potatoes, an herb or two, and some kind of milk or cream.  New England Clam Chowder, though often thick when served in outside of New England is actually fairly thin.  Oyster crackers are still the preferred method for thickening chowder to one’s liking.  Though the most authentic recipes use whole clams, I prefer the easy version of this quicker clam chowder:

New England Clam Chowder
- 4 oz. of salt pork, diced
- 1 large sweet or yellow onion, diced
- ¼ c. flour
- 2 8 oz. bottles clam juice
- 4 6.5 oz. cans clams
- 1 ½ lbs. of red potatoes, diced
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
- 1 cup. heavy cream
- 2 Tbsp. minced fresh parsley

1. Fry the salt pork in a stock pot over medium heat until it browns.  Add the onion and saute 5 minutes until it is softened.  Add the flour and stir for 1 minute.  Slowly whisk in the clam juice and 1 cup water.  Add the potatoes, bay leaf, and thyme and cook about 10 minutes until potatoes are tender.  Add clams with their juice, cream, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Now, it is true that there are lot of variations on fish chowder.  In Manhatten, it has a tomato broth.  Rhode Islanders' “South County Style” chowder has a clear broth.  New Jersey chowder adds celery powder, old bay seasoning, asparagus, and sliced tomatoes to a cream broth. Floridians near St. Augustine is more like a Manhatten chowder, but with datil pepper added, which is about as hot as a habanero.  These are some of the many variations that exist.  So, I decided to just focus on variations of white chowder.  
What amazes me is how you can change the recipe just a little and create something that feels totally different.  Take the Scottish dish Cullen Skink for example.  Except for the substitution of smoked haddock for clams and the fact that the potatoes and onions are pureed into the broth, it is almost identical.

Scottish Cullen Skink
- 2 lbs smoked whitefish (bones carefully removed if not boneless)
- 5 cups milk
- 2 baking potatoes, peeled and diced
- 1 large sweet or yellow onion, diced
- parsley for garnish

1. Combine fish and milk in a stockpot over medium heat and cook until the fish flakes easily, about 10 minutes.  Remove the fish with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the potatoes and onion and simmer until cooked through, about 10 minutes.
2. Transfer the onion, potato, milk mixture to a blender and blend, in batches if necessary, or use an immersion blender in the pot.  Return the pot and add more milk if necessary to get it to the desired consistency.  Flake the fish into the soup, season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve, garnishing with parsley.

I started looking at other cuisines to see if anyone else was making soups with milk and cream and I remembered a favorite of mine from Colombian cuisine: ajiaco.  This dish is made with chicken, but Colombians also enjoy fish as a part of their diet, so I decided to re-tool the recipe. Aside from a couple of additions, It is remarkably similar to the original.

Colombian Fish Chowder
- 2 lbs white fish filets, baked, and cut into chunks.
- 1 sweet or yellow onion, diced
- 1 tsp. ground cumin
- 1 tsp. dried thyme
- 1 lb red potatoes, diced
- 1 quart fish stock or 4 bottles clam juice
- 1 cup corn kernals
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 ripe avocado, diced

1. Saute the onion in a little oil over medium heat until softened.  Add the garlic and thyme and cook until fragrant.  Add the potatoes and fish stock and bring to a simmer over medium high heat.  Reduce heat to low and cook until potatoes are cooked through, about 10 minutes.  Add the corn, heavy cream, and chunks of fish, salt and pepper to taste, and serve, topping with some of the avocado.

For my final experiment, I immediately thought of tom kha thale, a delicious shrimp soup in a coconut milk broth.  However, I had a problem. My friend John, who has traveled extensively in southeast Asia assured me that they do not eat potatoes.  However, they do, at least on occasion, eat sweet potatoes.  Since I was already substituting coconut milk for dairy I decided sweet potatoes were an acceptable substitute as well.  The result did not disappoint.

Thai Shrimp Chowder
- 3 stalks of lemongrass, bottom 5 inches only, thick outer leaves removed, and sliced thin
- 3 shallots, chopped
- 3 sprigs of cilantro
- 3 Tbsp. fish sauce
- 4 cups fish stock or 4 bottles clam juice
- 2 cans of coconut milk
- 2 lbs. shrimp, peeled and tails removed
- 1 ½ lbs. sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
- 3 Tbsp. juice from 2 limes
- 1 Tbsp. red curry paste
- cilantro leaves and sliced scallions for garnish

1. Saute the lemongrass, shallots, and cilantro over medium heat until softened. Add the fish sauce, fish stock, coconut milk, and sweet potatoes and bring to a simmer.  Reduce the heat to low and cook until the sweet potatoes are cooked through, about 15 minutes.  Remove the cilantro sprigs, add the lime juice, red curry paste, and shrimp and cook a few minutes more until the shrimp are cooked through.  Serve, garnishing with cilantro leaves and scallion slices.

I love New England clam chowder and all of these variations really hit the spot.  It makes me think that you can’t go wrong with fish, potato, onion, and cream.  Do you have a favorite White seafood chowder you’d care to share with us? Let me know in the comment section.

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