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New England Fresh and Smoked
Haddock Chowder

By Charlie Burke

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There are many “authentic” New England chowder recipes, but the quality and
authenticity vary widely. When it is billed as “so thick your spoon will stand in
it” or it’s called “chowda”, I pass it by. The only thickening in true New
England chowder comes from potato starch and from heavy cream, not from
flour, so the broth is slightly thicker than milk; also, any New England cook who
takes making chowder seriously would never use such tourist trap language.

The essentials of New England chowder include onions, a small amount of
finely chopped celery, potatoes, smoked bacon or salt pork, water or fish stock,
milk, and usually some heavy cream and butter to finish it.

The awareness of the importance of decreasing unhealthy fats in our diets has
resulted in much less butter and cream in newer chowder recipes. I no longer
add butter and use only a small volume of cream, if I use it. I’ve made it with no-
fat evaporated milk, which makes fine chowder; evaporated milk was used in
many earlier recipes. A new product, fat free half and half, also works fine, and I
include it in this recipe.

Smoked haddock, or “finnan haddie”, is an old New England staple which is
still available from traditional fish markets. The fish is cold smoked and was
traditionally boiled in milk and served with hard boiled eggs, but I have never
seen it on any menu prepared this way. Here, it is combined with fresh fillets to
give a smoky twist to fresh fish chowder.

Standard fish chowder is prepared much like this recipe, using fish stock or
water, but here the poaching liquid used to cook the smoked haddock gives a
mild, smoky flavor to the broth, so no other stock is used. I use smokehouse
bacon in lobster stews and with plain fish or clam chowder, but there would be
too much smoke flavor here.

Traditionally, diced salt pork would be used, but I substitute pancetta (rolled
unsmoked pork belly from Italy) which has more lean meat from which the fat
can be trimmed.

Four servings:

1 pound fresh haddock, cod or scrod (small haddock or cod) fillets
1 pound smoked haddock, trimmed of skin and bones removed
¼ cup diced lean salt pork or pancetta, trimmed of excess fat before dicing
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 small center stalk celery, very finely chopped
2 medium Yukon gold or all purpose potatoes, cut into ½ inch cubes*
2 cups milk
1/2 cup heavy cream or 2/3 cup fat free half and half
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme (optional)
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper

To poach smoked haddock:

3 cups water
1 teaspoon pepper corns
1 bay leaf
1 small carrot, roughly chopped
1 small celery stalk, chopped
1 small onion, chopped

In a pan large enough to hold the smoked haddock in one layer, bring water and
next five ingredients to a boil. Add smoked haddock and lower heat. Simmer,
covered, for 12 minutes after the liquid returns to a boil. Remove smoked
haddock and set aside. Strain poaching liquid and set aside.

In a heavy pan over medium heat cook the salt pork or pancetta until lightly
browned. Add onion, and celery and cook, stirring until onion and celery are
soft. Add poaching liquid and potatoes and cook until potatoes are just tender.
Add milk and cream, half and half and thyme, and when the liquid is barely
simmering, add whole fresh fish fillets and the smoked haddock to the pan.
Cook, just below the boil for 10 minutes or until the fresh fish is just opaque.
Add salt and pepper to taste.

Chowders always improve with resting for a half hour or so. If you are making
it an hour or less before serving, it is safe to leave it in the pan, covered, to be
reheated. To serve, use a slotted spoon or spatula to lift potatoes and fish into
bowls Serve the fish in large pieces. Ladle the broth into the bowls to a depth
which does not quite cover the fish. Traditionally, chowder is served in New
England with common crackers or oyster crackers.

New England fish chowder is another great dish made from few ingredients.
The thin broth captures the fish flavor, rather than overwhelming it, is as is the
case with pasty flour thickened chowders.

*After starting this chowder the other night, I discovered we had no potatoes. I
prepared Israeli couscous in water with a little butter and served the chowder
over it. It had true fish chowder flavor, but was much lighter, and I’ve been told
this is how I’ll be doing it in the future! I’m sure it would cause considerable
consternation Down East, but I’ll bet frugal Yankees would have used this
pearly starch if they’d had it.

About the author: An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice
president of the
New Hampshire Farmer'sMarket Association, president of the NH Farm
to Restaurant Connection and helps run the Sanbornton (NH) Farmers' Market.  Along
with his wife, Joanne, Charlie grows certified organic herbs, greens and berries at Weather
Hill Farm in Sanbornton, NH.  
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