There is a world of difference between a true chowder and the soupy, flour-thickened stuff you find in the run-of-the-mill seafood restaurant. My own ideal chowder would recreate what I imagine was a simple, one-pot meal constructed by the fisherman while he was out on the cold, cold waters of the Atlantic, waiting to pull in his lines. It would be made with the simplest ingredients, and not too many of them either.
Note that chowder making once was all the rage in New England. Families and friends would pile into sail boats with their pot and other essentials and make a weekend out of boiling up a chowder while on the beach of some wind-blown island.
What you see here is something very close to my own ideal--not a soup, certainly, and not even a stew. Something closer to a creamy muddle. It's made very simply by layering onions, potatoes, fish and crackers in a heavy pot, then covering it with a seafood broth and baking in the oven. Before bringing the pot to the table, a generous amount of heavy cream is poured into the brew and returned to the oven so that it emerges with a deliciously caramelized top.
This must be a very ancient and widespread technique, because we make a similar seafood stew with Portuguese origins. The basic ingredients are almost identical--onions, potatoes, fish and shellfish--but of course the seasonings are not and there is no cream involved. We love that stew also because it is so simple and everything cooks together, all at once, in the same pot, which then becomes the serving vessel set on a trivet in the middle of the table. It's a wonderful way to entertain a group of friends who are easily satisfied with a bowl of stew and perhaps a simple dessert as well, such as gingerbread cake with whipped cream. Imagine such a meal washed down with a hearty beer, or maybe a tall glass of sparkling wine.
This particular recipe comes from Jasper White's 50 Chowders, one of the best-researched volumes on the subject. If you like chowders and want to know how to make them properly, this would be a very good place to start.
In olden times, a chowder like this would be made with cod fillets, or perhaps haddock if company were coming for dinner. But since cod and haddock have very nearly been wiped out in the Atlantic, and since humankind is working so hard to destroy the rest of the ocean ecosystem, we have to be careful about which kind of fish we use in our chowder. I try to follow the guidelines of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood Watch" program.
Lately I've been using hake--it is such a bargain compared to most other fish in the market--but now I find that only certain kinds of hake are considered a "good alternative" by "Seafood Watch." Halibut would be an excellent choice, and I suppose you could also substitute striped bass or even catfish and, as a last resort, farmed tilapia. In fact, you really don't recognize the fish much when the chowder pot comes out of the oven. But it is rather more satisfying to bite into a solid piece of fish, rather than something that has simply disintegrated in the cooking process.
If I have time and some fish bones, I make fresh fish broth or fumet for this chowder. It really is the best and doesn't require much time or trouble. Otherwise, use a quality commercial seafood stock such as Kitchen Basics.
One further note: fisherman used to make chowders with a tough cracker called "hard tack" that later came to be known as the "Pilot Cracker." Nabisco had planned to cease making the "Pilot Cracker" until a group of ladies in Maine rose up in protest. It's hard to find these thick and very plain crackers outside New England. But I found that the very thin and humble water cracker makes a pretty good substitute just crushed with the hand into bite-size pieces.
4 ounces salt pork, rind removed and sliced very thinly
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced lengthwise
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 dried bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold or similar potatoes, peeled and sliced very thinly
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 pounds skinless white fish fillets (such as halibut)
4 ounces water crackers, broken into bite-size pieces
5 cups fish stock
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
chopped parsley for garnish
Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees
Fry salt pork at the bottom of a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven until just browned. Remove salt pork and save for later.
Add to the pot butter, onions, thyme, bay leaves, cloves and nutmeg. Gently saute onions until soft but not browned, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.
To build the chowder, put 1/3 of the onion mixture at the bottom pot, followed by half the potatoes, then half the fish fillets, then half the crackers, seasoning along the way with salt and ground pepper. Repeat with another layer, using the final 1/3 of the onions to cover the fish. Pour the fish stock over everything using the handle of a wooden spoon, if necessary, to poke through the ingredients and make sure the stock fills in from the bottom. Place over moderate heat on the stove until the liquid begins to steam.
Put the pot, covered, in the stove and bake until the potatoes are just cooked through, about 30 minutes. Scatter the cooked salt pork over the top of the chowder and pour in the cream. Return to oven, uncovered, for 15 minutes longer, at which point the cream should be browning around the edges.
Ladle the chowder into preheated bowls and garnish with parsley. Serve with your favorite beer or wine. Or perhaps you have a bottle of local hard cider you enjoy?