Growing up between Philadelphia and my family’s ancestral home along the Bay of Fundy French shore of Nova Scotia (Acadia) I ate a lot of fish. Fish and seafood came in every variety even for breakfast – classic smoked haddock for Finnan Haddie. By early adulthood even McDonald’s was offering the McLobster roll.
Fish chowder has remained a constant comfort food. The way my father prepared the dish it had half the ingredients of my variation, but then as my grandmother once stated, he had “simple yet expensive taste” – the best ingredients unadorned. I became a chef and through the influence of my 6th generation New Orleans wife, discovered the more flavorful cuisine of my Cajun cousins.
Although this recipe stays true to the basics of fish chowder – salt pork, onions, celery, potatoes, cream, fish, salt and pepper – over my career I’ve embellished the recipe. Scallions, sweet peppers and paprika add both flavor and color. Dried basil in a soup or chowder is as important to me as salt.
Cilantro has been a love since my years living in the Caribbean and the stems are often ignored yet bursting with flavor that compliment fish and seafood without overpowering. Dried shrimp is a Cajun specialty that add intense flavor enriching the fish or seafood stock along with fresh shrimp shells. Mace has been a lost spice in savory dishes which I rediscovered studying historic recipes. Its warm, subtle flavor enhances any fish or seafood dish.
Fish Chowder – 8 generous servings
- 4 oz. salt pork, diced
- 1 large or 2 medium sweet (Vidalia, Walla Walla) onion, chopped
- 3 tablespoons sweet butter
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 bunch scallions, chopped
- 1 sweet red or orange bell pepper seeded and chopped
- 2 large or 3 medium carrots, peeled and diced
- the stems from one bunch of cilantro chopped (not the leaves – cut the stems just below the start of the leaves)
- 3 large or 4 medium stalks celery, chopped
- 3 to 4 large potatoes (approximately 1-1/2 pound) peeled & diced (place in a bowl of cold water until ready to use to prevent browning. Drain water before adding to chowder)
- 1/4 pound (4 ounces) raw shrimp in the shell
- 1-1/2 to 2 pounds (24 to 32 ounces) firm fresh boneless & skinless white fish fillet such as cod, haddock, halibut or a combination
- 1 quart fish or seafood stock
- 1 generous tablespoon dried shrimp (readily available in Asian food stores)
- 1 quart half & half
- 1/4 teaspoon dried basil
- 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
- 1/8 teaspoon ground mace
- salt & white pepper to taste (do not use black pepper)
- Dice the salt pork and place in a skillet. Over low heat, fry the pork for 20 – 30 minutes until all the fat is rendered and the pork dice is dry and light brown. Remove the pork with a slotted spoon, discard but reserve the fat.
- Prepare all the vegetables.
- Peel the shrimp and reserve the shells. Slice each shrimp into 3 pieces.
- Cut the fish fillets into cubes and refrigerate both the shrimp & fish until needed.
- In a 2-quart saucepan, add the seafood or fish stock and the shells of the shrimp. Cover and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer gently until ready to use but at least 15 minutes.
- Add the reserved pork fat to a large heavy pot (8-quart) and the butter. Melt over medium heat. Add the onion, celery and dried basil and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is turning translucent, 5 to 7 minutes – do not brown.
- Add the scallions, bell pepper, garlic, cilantro stems and carrots. Stir and cook for 5 minutes more.
- Drain the potatoes, add to the vegetables and stir to combine.
- Strain the stock, discarding the shrimp shells, and add to the vegetables. Add the dried shrimp. Cover and bring to a simmer. Cook until the potatoes are just fork tender – approximately 8 - 10 minutes.
- When the potatoes are cooked, add the cubed fish and the chopped shrimp. Bring back to a simmer, cover and gently cook for 5 – 8 minutes.
- While the chowder is simmering, pour the half & half into the saucepan used to heat the stock. Over medium low heat, bring just to a simmer.
- Add the hot half & half, paprika and mace. Stir and simmer for an additional 5 minutes.
- Ladle into bowls and garnish with chopped cilantro and a sprinkle of sweet paprika.
This recipe makes enough chowder for at least eight servings, but even if that’s more than you believe you want, allowing the chowder to cool and sit for a day or two in the refrigerator only enhances the flavors. Reheat on the stove or microwave, enjoy the aroma and envision fisherman on the Grand Banks.