Chowder to ward off winter's chill

As February's dampness descends, this potato fish stew -- sometimes sans fish -- offers warmth from within.

By , Correspondent

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    A bird flies over a crab fishing boat in Half Moon Bay, Calif.
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Let's hear a few whimpers for poor little February. This second month of the year is the shortest, the most mispronounced (the first "r" is invariably ignored), and often the coldest.

To find shelter from February's bone-chilling bite, I find comfort at night snuggled between flannel sheets, under two down puffs and a Scottish terrier; and during the day, leaning over the blue flames of a gas stove, slowly churning up a steaming, aromatic pot of viscous chowder. (Someone once observed that having dinner at my house in the winter was like eating in a meat locker.)

If spring and summer are salad days, the winter months are reserved for stews and chowders.

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So what, exactly, is a chowder, as opposed to a soup, or even a stew? The line between them is as squiggly as a ramen noodle and fuzzy as a kiwi fruit.

One thing we do know for sure, is the word chowder is derived from the French chaudière, or caldron, in which fishermen made their soups and stews on the beach with the leftover bounty of the day's catch. The classic example of this is the fabulous bouillabaisse from Marseilles.

Here in New England, chowder is most often associated with a fish "soup" to which milk or cream and potatoes are added to give it thickness and substance. And although it is usually associated with fish, it's not always the case, as in the cheddar cheese version below.

However you like it, make it, or pronounce it, nothing takes the curse off February days like the comfort of a big bowl of chowdah!

CRAB AND CORN CHOWDER

Serves 6

This is one of my favorites in the chowder category. Nothing beats fresh crabmeat, however, quality crabmeat is often available in the refrigerated section of your supermarket. Canned crabmeat sold off the shelves is a bit iffy, so be warned.

3/4 pound all-purpose potatoes

3 tablespoons butter

1 cup diced celery

1 cup diced onions

2 cups fish stock, or 1 cup clam juice and 1 cup water

2 cups cream (heavy, light, or 1 cup of each)

2 cups frozen corn kernels, thawed

3 to 5 tablespoons sherry (optional)

Salt and ground pepper, to taste

2 cups fresh or quality refrigerated crabmeat

Hot sauce or Tabasco, to taste

1/2 cup chopped cilantro or parsley

Peel potatoes and cut them into 1/4-inch cubes (about 1-1/2 cups).

Cover potatoes with cold water; set aside.

Melt butter in a 3-quart saucepan over medium-low heat; add celery and onions. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft and wilted, about 5 minutes.

Add drained potatoes, fish stock (or clam juice and water), cream, corn, sherry, salt, and pepper. Reduce heat to simmer and cook until potatoes are tender.

Gently stir in crabmeat and cook until thoroughly heated. Stir in a few dashes of your favorite hot sauce, or Tabasco, if desired. Taste and adjust seasonings to your liking.

Ladle chowder into heated soup bowls; sprinkle with cilantro or parsley.

CHEDDAR CHEESE AND POTATO CHOWDER

Serves about 4

Here is a chowder without a hint of fish. I first had a similar one at a New Year's Eve gathering in England. Although I prefer it made with a sharp or extra-sharp cheddar, it's your choice. Any vegetarians in your family? Just omit the bacon or serve it on the side. And don't hold back on the ground pepper if you want extra oomph.

1 large all-purpose potato, peeled and diced

1 bay leaf

3 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup diced celery

1/2 cup diced onion

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/3 cup flour

1 14-1/2 ounce can chicken or vegetable broth

2 cups whole milk or light cream

1/2 pound grated mild or sharp cheddar cheese

1 to 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

4 slices bacon, fried crisp and crumbled

Chopped chives or scallions for garnish

Cook diced potato in a small saucepan with salted water and bay leaf. When potato is tender, set aside; remove bay leaf.

Melt butter in a 3-quart saucepan over medium-low heat; add celery and onion. Cook about 5 minutes, or until vegetables are tender. Add garlic and cook 1 minute, stirring constantly.

Add flour; cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add chicken broth and milk or cream; turn heat to simmer, and cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until mixture begins to thicken.

Stir in cheese in small amounts, until melted, then add drained potato, mustard, salt, and plenty of pepper; stir until blended and thoroughly heated.

Add additional milk or cream, if necessary, to reach desired consistency.

Taste and adjust seasonings.

Ladle chowder into heated soup bowls.

Serve topped with crumbled bacon and chives or scallions.

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