CHOWDER knows no season. When brisk March winds whip around, it's a solid starter to any dinner designed to chase away the shivers. And in warm months, a chowder can be a meal's backbone, rounded out with a salad, wheat rolls, or crunchy bread.
Chowder is a dish that's been on many a menu for years. Most food historians believe the origin of the word ``chowder'' comes from the French word chaudi`ere, the name of a pot into which French-Canadian sailors tossed their fish to make a communal pot of stew. They brought the custom with them when they settled in New England.
Colonial recipes from settlers' times often include sizable amounts of spices such as cloves, mace, and marjoram, used with a rather overgenerous hand. Later on spices were omitted altogether in chowders, although over the years home cooks have added their own innovations to the basic broths.
Before there was refrigeration, fish and meat were smoked to keep for later use. Today they're smoked to enhance the flavor, and it has become a trendy practice, and a delicious one, to use the smoked product in chowders and stews. Smoked turkey chowder, for example, is a good hearty dish. Many restaurant chefs find the smoked flavor adds a subtle difference to seafood. A light touch of herbs and spices further enhances the tang of the sea.
Today chowder is defined as a soup made with clams or other seafood or with corn, chicken, and small pieces of vegetables. Usually onion, salt pork, and milk are included.
Clam chowder is associated with New England, but around 1840 chowder in Boston was as apt to be made with cod or haddock as clams, and this holds true today.
In ``Moby Dick'' (1851) Herman Melville wrote of a chowder house in Nantucket, where Queequeg and Ishmael were offered the choice of two kinds of chowder -- clam or cod.
Melville describes the steaming clam chowder as made of small, juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazelnuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits and salted pork cut into little flakes.
The Pacific coast also has its share of fresh local chowder ingredients, and young chefs have created new combinations of foods that take advantage of both the flavor and texture of salmon, sturgeon, prawns, sole, and oysters.
Jimella Lucas, a young chef who once worked as a commercial fisherman, serves wonderful Pacific seafood in her restaurant, The Ark, in Nahcotta, Wash. Her recipes are found in a cookbook written with her partner, Nanci Main, titled ``The Ark Restaurant Cookbook'' (Penguin, $8.95).
One of her fish soups, called a bouillabaisse, includes salmon, crab, mussels, prawns, sturgeon, and other fish with herbs such as fennel, coriander, and celery seed.
The Ark also serves a traditional Boston Clam Chowder said to be one of the best on the West Coast, but not one that would necessarily get raves from that segment of Bostonians who still insist on tradition even in their chowders. The Ark version includes vegetables and spices along with snapper, clams, or other fish.
The issue of whether one should add tomato to chowder is a regional preference, for although New Englanders in the northern states of this region prefer chowder with milk, cooks from Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York are said to prefer tomatoes.
In New York City, author and cooking teacher John Clancy returned to his first ambition when he opened a seafood restaurant in New York a few years ago, serving unpretentious, scrupulously fresh seafood.
One of his specialties is a chowder that can be made easily at home using most any kind of smoked fish, such as sable or whitefish or haddock. Clancy's Smoked Haddock Chowder 9 tablespoons butter 1 leek, white part, finely diced 1 medium carrot, finely diced 1 medium onion, finely diced 5 celery stalks, finely diced 6 tablespoons all purpose flour 6 cups fish or chicken stock, preferably homemade 3 white peppercorns 1 bay leaf 1 small green and 1 small red pepper, diced 1/2 pound smoked haddock, flaked 2 russet potatoes, peeled, cubed, and blanched 1 cup milk 1 cup whipping cream, room temperature Salt Freshly ground pepper Several drops lemon juice Dash hot pepper sauce 3 to 4 strips crisp bacon, crumbled Chopped fresh parsley
Heat 6 tablespoons butter in heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add leek, carrot, onion, and half the celery. Cook until soft, l0 to l2 minutes, stirring frequently. Do not brown.
Remove from heat and stir in flour. Return to heat and cook 2 minutes. Whisk in stock, peppercorns, and bay leaf. Bring mixture to boil, whisking constantly. Reduce heat and partly cover. Simmer 1 hour.
Strain stock and vegetable mixture into medium saucepan, pressing vegetables to extract liquid.
In separate pan, saut'e remaining celery and green and red peppers in remaining 3 tablespoons butter until just tender. Add to chowder with haddock and potatoes. Simmer an additional 20 minutes.
Whisk in milk and heavy cream. Season to taste with salt, pepper, lemon juice, and hot sauce.
Garnish with crumbled bacon and parsley. Serves 8 to 12. The Ark's Seafood Chowder 1/2 cup butter 3 cups onions, diced 1 1/2 cup carrots, diced 1/2 medium green pepper, diced 1 cup celery, diced 6 cloves minced garlic Salt and pepper 1 tablespoon marjoram 1 tablespoon whole thyme 3 cups diced fresh tomatoes 6 cups fish stock 3 tablespoons roux 1 1/2 cups potatoes, diced 1/2 to 3/4 pounds snapper fillets Chowder clams, chopped Chopped parsley
In soup pot over medium heat, melt butter. Add first 4 vegetables plus garlic. Saut'e until tender, stirring occasionally. Add seasonings and tomatoes and cook 3 to 5 minutes. Add fish stock. Bring to boil.
Add roux made of flour and water, stir, and simmer 5 to 10 minutes, or until mixture thickens. Cook about 10 minutes on medium heat, stirring frequently.
Add potatoes. Cook until tender. Increase heat to boil. Add snapper cut in 1-inch pieces. Cook at rolling boil 4 minutes; add clams and cook 1 minute.
Sprinkle lightly with chopped parsley. Serve with crackers or French bread.
The Portuguese who settled on the tip of Cape Cod in Provincetown, Mass., left a rich heritage of seafood recipes. This fish chowder is from Peter Hunt's ``Cape Cod Cookbook'' (1954), and it uses cumin and saffron to add spice. Peter Hunt's Portuguese Fish Chowder 1/2 cup salt-pork cubes 1 cup chopped onion 3 cups diced potatoes 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper 1/2 teaspoon saffron 1 tablespoon vinegar 2 pounds lean white fish, haddock, cod, or flounder
In deep, heavy kettle, fry pork cubes slowly, stirring, until pork is crisp. Remove with slotted spoon.
Fry onion in hot fat until soft. Add potatoes, seasonings, vinegar, and 6 cups cold water.
Boil until potatoes are half done, then add fish. Cook over moderate heat until fish is tender. Add browned bits of pork. Serves 6.
Cioppino is a fish stew usually associated with San Francisco. The word is Italian, from a word in the Genoese dialect, cioppin, meaning a fish stew. Cioppino is said to have originated with crab fishermen on the waterfront wharves of San Francisco, where it is made and served today. Cioppino 1 cup sliced celery 1 cup chopped green pepper 2 large onions, chopped 2 large cloves garlic, minced 1/2 cup Italian olive oil 4 cups vegetable juice cocktail 2 cups chicken stock or broth 1/4 cup tomato paste 1 large bay leaf 1 teaspoon basil, crushed 2 dried red chilies, chopped 1/2 teaspoon sugar 2 pounds cod, sole or rockfish fillets, cut in 2-inch pieces 1 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined 2 or more crabs, shelled 2 dozen cherrystone clams, scrubed 1/2 cup chopped parsley
In large saucepan, saut'e celery, green pepper, onion, and garlic in oil until tender. Add juice, chicken broth, tomato paste, bay leaf, basil, chilies, and sugar. Simmer 30 minutes.
Add fish, shrimp, and crab. Cook 5 minutes. Add clams; cook until shells open. Garnish with parsley. Serves 8.