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Authentic New England Fish Chowder:
Hold the Flour!
By Charlie Burke

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Although in parts of southern New England tomatoes are found in some clam
and fish chowders, recipes for authentic New England chowders created north
of Boston list few ingredients – and tomatoes are not among them.

Subtle variations occur, usually involving the proportions of milk and cream,
and some call for fish stock, while others use water. Otherwise, potatoes, onions,
salt pork or bacon, and a mix of milk and cream along with butter form the base.
Traditionally, haddock or cod was used, although pollack found its way into
many chowder pots with excellent results. I recall my mother using this
standard recipe to make a chowder from yellow perch I’d caught on vacation,
and it tasted like her other chowders, although her trimming and de-boning the
small fillets were certainly a labor of love.

New England fish chowder cooks in a broth, thickened by only the cream and
the starch from the potatoes. Although some “church chowders” in Maine
contained only milk and had a tablespoon or two of flour added to make up for
the lack of heavy cream, flour should never be used to thicken the broth. Dense,
flour thickened “chowders” are touted on menus in some restaurants catering to
tourists, but these concoctions bear little resemblance to real chowders where
the thin broth blends the delicate flavors of the fish and other ingredients. New
England cooks debate the relative merits of salt pork and bacon, and some have
strong preference for a particular potato, but none would ever serve thick
chowder.

I usually prepare a light version of chowder, leaving out the butter and cream
unless we’re serving only a cup to guests. I mash some of the potatoes against
the side of the pot if the broth seems too watery; this healthy lean chowder
captures the essence of fish chowder but the richness added by the cream and
milk is admittedly lacking.

The flavor of local smokehouse bacon blends well with the fish, and a few sprigs
of fresh thyme are used in many versions. Use very fresh fish and follow the
basic steps and you will soon find your favorite version, but, please, no flour!

Four servings:

1 ½ - 2 pounds firm white fish, such as haddock, cod or pollack (flounder and
sole are too soft for chowder)
¼ cup diced salt pork or smoked bacon, diced
1 medium onion, diced
2 medium potatoes in 1 inch cubes
2 cups fish stock (available in most fish markets) or water
1 ½ cups heavy cream, milk or a combination of the two
4 tablespoons butter
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, optional
Chopped fresh flat leaf parsley, thyme or chives for garnish, optional

Heat a heavy pot over medium heat and add bacon or salt pork. Cook until
lightly browned, add onion and butter and cook, stirring, until onion is
translucent. Add stock or water, potatoes and thyme and cook until potatoes are
nearly done. Add cream or milk or a mixture of the two (if using cream, I use 1
cup of milk and ½ cup cream). Turn the heat to low so that the broth does not
boil and add the fish, leaving fillets intact. Cover and cook until fish is barely
opaque, 8 – 10 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat, taste broth and add salt
and pepper to taste. The flavor of chowder improves if it rests for 30 minutes or
more and is then reheated, but it can be served when the fish is cooked. It can
also be cooled on the stove, covered and refrigerated for 24 – 48 hours. It should
be reheated over low heat and not boiled.

Serve the chowder, garnished with herbs and common crackers or oyster
crackers. Place the fish, potatoes and other ingredients into a bowl and pour
broth around the fish, leaving the fish above the level of the broth.

A bowl of chowder, along with a salad, makes a fine lunch or light dinner, as it
has for generations of New Englanders. Prepared from a few special fresh local
ingredients, it typifies New England fare: honest, full of flavor and nutrition,
and totally lacking in pretense (and flour!).

About the author: An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice
president of the
New Hampshire Farmer's Market 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.  
The Heart of New England
Celebrating the unique character & culture of Maine ~ New Hampshire ~ Vermont
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