Winter has definitely arrived where I live in Minnesota. When I leave work today, the temperature is expected to be -6 with a windchill of -32.
But the oft-forgotten chowder is also a great winter dish to warm the kitchen and the body. Very popular particularly in New England and the Atlantic coastal states, we tend to think of chowders as a hearty, cream or tomato based soup with chunks of potatoes, meat and vegetables. The main distinguishing factor between a stew and a chowder being gravy versus broth, respectively.
At least, that’s what I thought.
When I decided to dig up an old recipe for chowder, I had very little knowledge of the form. What I discovered is that traditionally, chowders are more like soupy casseroles, and that ‘chowdering’ referred to the process of layering ingredients. One of the first recipes for a chowder, for example, was published as a poem in the Boston Evening Post on September 23, 1751:
First lay some Onions to keep the Pork from burning
Because in Chouder there can be not turning;
Then lay some Pork in slices very thing,
Thus you in Chouder always must begin.
Next lay some Fish cut crossways very nice
Then season well with Pepper, Salt, and Spice;
Parsley, Sweet-Marjoram, Savory, and Thyme,
Then Biscuit next which must be soak’d some Time.
Thus your Foundation laid, you will be able
To raise a Chouder, high as Tower of Babel;
For by repeating o’er the Same again,
You may make a Chouder for a thousand men.
Last a Bottle of Claret, with Water eno; to smother ’em,
You’ll have a Mess which some call Omnium gather ’em.
This kind of layered chowder is rarely seen today, which is a shame. It is immensely satisfying, full of flavor, and relatively inexpensive. Much like the creole jambalaya, fish chowder is one of those one-pot wonders that have the flexibility of being made with whatever fish or shellfish you have on hand.
Chowders are thought to originate in the coastal fishing communities of France, who used to cook the day’s catch in a “chauderie,” a large cast-iron cauldron. Clam and oyster chowders were likely consumed in the 16th and 17th centuries in Colonial America, though the clam chowder we know today is more of a late 19th century innovation.
I ultimately chose Lydia Maria Francis Child’s recipe from her very popular 1830 cookbook The Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy for several reasons. The Mark Bittman of her generation, her recipes are flexible in terms of ingredients and variations, and they teach skills as much as they teach a specific recipe. The cookbook went through over 35 printings, before it was eventually allowed to go out of print in 1850 due to Child’s abolitionist work and the growing number of more contemporary cookbooks being published at the time.
One of the many intriguing aspects of Child’s recipe is the absence of milk, and yet, when cooked, the broth is creamy. How is this possible? My guests were certainly unnerved by the idea. The flour from the crackers and the starch in the potatoes break down and thicken the broth. I was skeptical at first, but it works. For those with lactose issues, this could be a real gem.
Any fish will work for this recipe, but Child notes that Cod is particularly effective. Four or five pounds is an awful lot too. Depending on the amount you’re wanting to make, 2 pounds is probably plenty. You’ll find that this method of cooking produces the most moist, flaky fish.
Try to use an interesting bacon for the base, or alternatively, some salt pork and a little oil could be used. This first step helps to grease the pan and prevent burning later, in addition to adding flavor. I really wouldn’t recommend adding salt at any point in the assembling of the chowder – or if so, leave it to just a bit during one layer. Go to town with the pepper and any other seasonings, and know you can always add salt after. I also had a bit of fresh thyme in my fridge and added that to the seasonings.
Child ends the recipe noting that “a sliced lemon adds to flavor. A cup of tomato catsup is very excellent. Some people put in a cup of beer.” Guests and friends of mine have also turned their noses at such suggestions. But think about it – one normally squeezes some fresh lemon over fish. Adding a tomato sauce will be not unlike Manhattan Clam Chowder. And beer and fish go as well together as pork and apples. Be adventurous! And don’t forget there is a great old recipe for a tomato catsup here at the American Table.
Below, I give Child’s recipe and my adaptation of it.
“Fish Chowder.” Lydia Maria Child, The Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy. Boston: Carter and Hendee, 1830. p. 61.
2 pounds of non-oily fish, sliced
1/2 pound of good bacon, sliced into lardons
2 medium onions, sliced
4 medium potatoes, sliced
salt and pepper
1 cup of flour
1 sliced lemon, 1 cup of beer, or 1 cup of tomato catsup (optional)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Fry bacon in a large, heavy-bottomed cast-iron or enameled cast-iron pot. When bacon is crisp, remove bacon leaving grease in the pot, and remove the pot from heat. Arrange slices of fish on top of bacon layer. Add a layer each of crackers, onions, and potatoes, and then season with a small amount of salt, and a generous amount of black pepper. Repeat layers – bacon, fish, crackers, onions, potatoes, seasoning – until ingredients are used. In a separate bowl, combine 1 cup of flour and enough water that will cover the ingredients in the pot. Pour flour/water mixture into pot. Cover the pot with a heavy lid and place in oven. To prevent moisture from escaping do not remove lid during cooking. If the pot was filled near the top, place a pan underneath to catch any drippings. The chowder is done when the potatoes are tender, around 2 hours.
To cook with lemon, slice thin and remove seeds. Add the lemon in the layer between the fish and the bacon. The lemon flesh will cook through, and those eating the chowder will likely want to avoid eating the remaining rind – which should be easily visible on serving.
To cook with beer or tomato catsup, combine either with the flour/water mixture and pour over ingredients.