I can't think of anything more American than chowder. This seafood soup is synonymous with chilly days and large family gatherings. Even though we're almost into spring, the weather has continued to be cold and dreary here in the Northeast. I've been craving hot bowls of soothing soup. There are many different recipes for chowder, including the little-known Rhode Island-style made of clear broth. But the one I'm a fan of is creamy New England-style, which was probably the first recorded chowder recipe, dating back to the 18th century. It just so happens that I'm the outlier in a family of all Manhattan-style lovers. Still for me, the fish broth enriched with cream holds the most appeal. That richness is what makes this chowder so soul-satisfying.
The recipe for chowder originally came from France ("chowder" comes from the word chaudière, meaning cauldron) and eventually made its way to England and over to the New World with the colonists. The recipe evolved according to the surroundings, availability of seafood, and the specific tastes of the region. Somewhere along the line certain recipes became more popular than others. Immigrants added their particular spin: the Portuguese added tomatoes to clear-broth chowder and invented what we know as Manhattan-style. That began the epic rivalry between New England- and Manhattan-style chowders, now typically made with clams. But the first chowders in America were made with fish.
This recipe for chowder is made from cod, which works great in soup. The fish breaks up very nicely without losing its meaty texture. Hake, haddock, or pollack would also work well. Potatoes are a must in any chowder, but the other vegetables can be altered to suit your taste. I include leeks and fennel for added onion sweetness and anise flavor. Traditionally, the base of chowder starts with frying salt pork to render the fat for cooking the vegetables. Here I use a combination of butter and oil for a somewhat lighter but no less flavorful chowder. This recipe will have you craving the creamy richness of new England-style chowder. If you aren't already a fan, you might just change your mind.
3 sprigs parsley
3 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 leek, white part only, chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 small fennel bulb, chopped, fronds reserved
1-1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, cubed
6 cups fish stock, clam juice, or water
fine sea salt
1-1/2 pounds cod fillet, skin and pin bones removed, cut into 1-1/2-inch chunks
1 cup heavy cream
Make bouquet garni: Place parsley, thyme, bay leaves, and peppercorns in a piece of cheesecloth and tie into a bundle with kitchen twine.
Warm butter and oil in a large pot set over medium heat. Add leek, onion, and fennel; sauté until very soft and translucent but not brown, about 10 minutes. Add potatoes. Pour in fish stock. Add bouquet garni. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Season soup with salt. Lightly season fish with salt. Add to pot and simmer until opaque and flaky, about 10 minutes. Remove bouquet garni and discard. Off from heat, stir in cream. Cover pot and let chowder rest at least 30 minutes before serving. Rewarm if necessary. Garnish with torn fennel fronds. Yield: 6 servings.