Chow-duh. Say it, Frenchy.
I have an aversion for recipes. I’m sure it points to some inner child issue with authority or some as-of-yet-undiagnosed, very specific unreasonable fear regarding Julia Child (bonappetitaphobia?). Regardless, I tend to go off the reservation on a fairly regular basis, as my long-suffering wife can attest[i]. As I’ve admitted before, I tend to look at recipes as fragments of a greater truth; pieces destined to be creatively intertwined. The only shackles of my culinary sojourns are: 1) what we happen to have on hand at the moment, 2) an appreciable amount of lazy, and 3) Physics. I believe the expression goes, “Cooking is like science for hungry people”, and I f&^%ing love science[ii]. This is the cavalier attitude that has led to previous gastronomical interludes, ranging from tasteful incarnations of standards, to blasphemies against all that is holy and good.
A common site in my kitchen.
A week ago I got it in my head that I wanted to make a Seafood chowder. Seeing as that my previous experience with chowder is mostly having consumed it, I looked at a slew of recipes for inspiration. As usual, I got bored halfway through most, and none really appealed to me. My theory is that you can make most things as long as you figure out what the base or key elements are[iii]. For a chowder, it’s the creamy soup base that’s the key. And at the heart of that base, like all things good and pure in this world, is bacon[iv]. Sadly, we were out of bacon. But normally this is where one would start.
Bacon adds a savory base and saltiness that balances out the later flavors. Done well, you shouldn’t get an overly bacony taste. You don’t even have to leave any in the chowder, you can just cook it down in some butter and stock until you get a good deal of its essence. Then of course, eat it directly out of the pan in your guilt and dirty, dirty shame.
I wish I knew how to quit you, bacon.
While the bacon would, hypothetically, be simmering, I prepared the veggies. Some purists, apparently, like a great limitation on solids in chowder...they recommend using vegetables only sparingly, to make sure the base shines through, and that the chowder is not mistaken for a common stew. That is a more philosophical debate than I’m willing to have about chowder, honestly, so once again, I am impure. I opted for parsnips[v], onions, potatoes (cooked separately) and celery. Regardless, we soldier on and veggies get chopped and potatoes start boiling.
This is a fantastic time to have your first beer. For this recipe I recommend the wonderful “Dig” Spring Seasonal from New Belgium. It’s a nice balance for the dish in that it’s green and earthy with balanced hops, and also that it’s beer.
In all fairness one may want to save the beer until the knife work is done.
Sauteeing the long-cooking vegetables come next. We start with some onions sautéing in the bacon infused butter/stock and add in a little more stock and the parsnips and celery. Bay leaves go in for the sake of not offending the spirit of Our Julia Who Cooks in Heaven (Hallowed Be Thy Souffle). You want to cook these down a little, but not so much that they’ll get mushy. Stock is slowly added, along with spices. I went with rosemary, to match the potatoes, and tarragon because I love me some damn tarragon.
In which we turn fresh vegetables into actual food.
Fish is pretty much a necessary ingredient for a seafood chowder[vi]. If you happen to have clams or mussels or shrimp or what have you, these are fine to toss in as well. I used catfish, which is great for taking on the flavors of whatever it’s in. Salmon is a good alternative since it holds up a little better than catfish. I cooked it down in a little stock and butter, seasoning with salt and pepper.
Yup. That’s fish.
In the mean time, we have added heavy cream, additional stock, and the cooked potatoes to the stock pot. Finding the balance between cream and stock is fairly important. It’s actually a lot less cream than you would think. Too much cream and you lose some of the flavor. I used a little finely sifted flour to get the thickness up to par. You want a good chowder going before you add the fish, which we will then unceremoniously dump into the chowder[vii].
Soup becomes fish soup, on its way to graduating to chowder. Or combusting. It’s a fine line in my kitchen.
At this point, the chowder is coming together pretty awesomely. Feel free to do a tentative dance of exaltation. Add in any quicker cooking items like the yellow peppers I selected, or even something like green apple if you’re feeling especially sassy[viii]. Simmer for a little while, but not too long. Just enough to let flavors diffuse.
Chowder, or a reasonable approximation thereof.
My chowder was, shamefully, a little thin so I used the leftover cooking liquid from the fish to form a thickening roux/paste. A little butter, white wine, and flour combines with the stock/fish, worked really well. I added it until the appropriate level of thickness was achieved[ix].
There is no problem butter cannot solve. Flour is just along for the ride.
I didn’t spend as much time thinking about sides as I did about the main dish. Luckily I had a nice acorn squash[x] on hand. Ideally I would have had some sourdough popovers or something, but it was already about 9PM and my wife was eyeing the takeout menus in desperation, so I made some cornbread muffins[xi] instead. The end result was good, but would have really benefitted from the bacon or similar savory base.
Chowder and Associates.
[i] I can tell if I’ve actually made something good by the level of surprise that eclipses her usual pained smile when tasting it. Sort of like a condemned man getting a reprieve, I’d assume.
[ii] Though, with respect to my actual scientist friends, my particular brand is admittedly more likely to skew toward the “mad” category when it comes to food. I’m less about the rigors of the scientific method, and more about “Hey, I wonder if broccoli can explode…”.
[iii] For this reason, it’s fairly likely that this post will be of little use to anyone actually trying to recreate this dish, unlike the wonderful food bloggery from my friend Joel. I am often unable to recreate my own dishes. They are precious and unique snowflakes. This post is really more about documenting the process. Or the evidence, depending on the outcome…
[iv] I exaggerate for affect…to be honest I’m not one of the bacon fanboys that live on the internet and obsess about bacon in the absence of anything else of import to focus on. I like bacon. I think it’s a great ingredient. I don’t however, wear ironic hipster t-shirts about bacon or have bacon-related decor. I try not to be judgemental in general, but I really can’t stand, and admittedly sometimes embody, this decidedly first world fascination of meta-obsessing about objects like it’s part of our identity. Bronies, I’m looking at you on this one.
[v] Fair warning, I frequently forget that parsnips can overpower a dish if you’re not careful. I like them, so my portions reflect this.
[vi] From a geologic time scale perspective you could probably get away with using chicken or even beef as something that, at one time, was sealife. But this would probably not be as witty as it seems in your head, and mostly just confuse people and make Julia cry.
[vii] If you have opted for a more expensive, fancy fish like Salmon or trout, feel free to dump it ceremoniously. I recommend something with a brass band and bunting. With the way I cook, I am usually wary of incorporating ceremony as it’s rather likely it would turn out like the opening of the Ark ceremony in Raiders. Why compound blasphemy?
[viii] Though to be honest, if you’re feeling an abundance of sass, chowder may not be the dish for you. May we recommend instead, something in a gazpacho? Gazpacho practically DRIPS with sass.
[ix] This is probably unnecessary for people who like thin soups. I like my chowder like Sir Mixalot likes his butts. Thick. But honestly, now that I think about it, it’s probably not the best simile to juxtapose butts and chowder.
[x] Acorn squash is one of those amazing intersections of “tastes good” and “good for you”. It is in almost the exact middle between the Heisenbrenner Bacon-to-Tofu Scale of Relative Deadliness as a Function of Nutritional Goodliness. I reject any notion that I completely just made that up.
[xi] There is no greater friend to the bachelor, college student, or chef in need of a starch in a hurry than the Jiffy Cornbread muffins mix. If you have 25 cents, 15 minutes, and an egg, you have cornbread. It’s just shy of magic.