Classic chowders, both humble and haute

When most people think of chowder, three types come to mind: fish, clam, and corn. But during the two years he researched this hearty dish, Jasper White discovered almost as many variations as there are fish in the sea.

The New England chef, whose authoritative cookbooks and frequent TV appearances have lent him celebrity status beyond his region, tested nearly 100 recipes for his latest book "50 Chowders: One-Pot Meals - Clam, Corn & Beyond" (Scribner, 256 pp., $30). Of the recipes he chose, 20 don't include seafood, and a few, such as the Pheasant and Cabbage Chowder, are his own innovations.

Over a bowl of chowder (what else?) and a plate of oysters at the Summer Shack, his wildly popular, family-style restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., Mr. White talked enthusiastically about this project and the dish he's always loved.

"Chowder has always gotten a bad rap because it's such a humble food," he says. "But that's one of the beautiful things about it."

In his book, White devotes the first chapter to the evolution of chowder. And in person, he gives the sound-bite version. "All the early chowders were made with staples or 'found' foods such as cod, clams, or bass. There are many theories, but the culinary historians I most admire believe chowder originated at sea [using] basic staples aboard most fishing vessels in the early 1700s - salt pork, hardtack or 'ship's biscuit,' and fresh fish."

If his book had been called "One Chowder," it would have been devoted to New England fish chowder, says White, since it preceded all others. "Clams weren't mentioned in recipes until 70 to 80 years later. Chowder was simply a way to cook cod." This theory is supported, White says, by the first written reference to North American chowder, which uses the word as a verb. In a diary entry from 1732, New Englander Benjamin Lynde wrote that he had "dined on a fine chowdered cod."

It might have been worth a note in his diary, but that first chowder was nothing to write home about. "It was like gruel," says White, grimacing. "You'd eat it when you were really hungry, and you'd keep quiet about it. Original chowders, made before stoves, were layered. Potatoes were considered poisonous, so hardtack was the starch of choice. And they'd cook with the whole fish. Forget filleting or deboning it."

Not until the early 1800s, after the invention of the stove, did chowder "get good," says White. "There was also a lot of excitement about foods arriving from places such as the Caribbean, and cooks experimented with herbs and spices."

About 1850, New England cooking began to lose its passion, says White. "A staid Puritan ethic took over, and cooking became something you did only to feed your family."

In spite of this, chowder parties, where families would gather for a beach picnic, caught fire. At those summertime gatherings, chowders might include, for the first time, clams, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, milk, cream, and butter.

In the 1950s and '60s, which he calls the "dark ages" of America's culinary history for its turn toward convenience, fast-food chains made chowder into a dull, pasty soup. "When a home dish goes commercial, its integrity is often lost," he explains.

White, who got his training at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, is gratified that what he calls the "Jackie O. years" brought new appreciation of fine food. But it wasn't until the past 20 years, he says, that chowder got a "new lease on life and a second look by chefs and food writers."

Fortunately, he adds, this appreciation has only increased despite the desire for quick meals to suit today's fast-paced lives. Which leads White to conclude that chowder is today's ideal food since it can be made ahead, and it actually tastes much better after it has "cured" for at least an hour and preferably, for a night or two.

Chowder's most defining ingredients are potatoes (White prefers Yukon Gold) and salt pork or bacon. Without those, it could be a stew or a soup. Onions are also essential. And key to a flavorful chowder is homemade stock and the freshest fish.

His book includes extensive sections on both stockmaking and selecting, storing, and filleting fish. "Get to know your fish vendor," he urges.

Some of White's fish chowder recipes feature bluefish, striped bass, or salmon, but he says that cod, haddock, and bass are his all-time favorites. "They are why chowder was created in the first place. Their lean and flaky texture balances beautifully with the richness of chowder."

New England Fish Chowder

4 ounces of meaty salt pork, rind removed and cut into 1/3-inch dice

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 medium onions (about 14 ounces), cut into 3/4-inch dice

6 to 8 sprigs fresh summer savory or thyme, leaves removed and chopped (1 tablespoon)

2 dried bay leaves

2 pounds Yukon Gold or other all-purpose potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/3 inch thick

5 cups Strong Fish Stock (see recipe, right)

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 pounds skinless haddock or cod fillets, preferably over 1 inch thick, pin bones removed

1-1/2 cups heavy cream (or up to 2 cups if desired)

For the garnish:

Chopped fresh Italian parsley

Minced fresh chives

Heat a 4- to 6-quart heavy pot over low heat and add the diced salt pork. Once it has rendered a few teaspoons of fat, increase the heat to medium and cook until the pork is a crisp golden brown. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the salt-pork cracklings to a small ovenproof dish, leaving the fat in the pot, and reserve until later.

Add butter, onions, savory or thyme, and bay leaves to the pot and saute, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, for about 8 minutes, until the onions are softened but not browned.

Add potatoes and stock. If the stock doesn't cover the potatoes, add water to cover them. Bring to a boil, cover, and cook the potatoes vigorously for about 10 minutes. If the stock hasn't thickened lightly, smash a few of the potato slices against the side of the pot and and cook for a minute or two longer to release their starch.

Reduce heat to low and season with salt and pepper. Add the fish and cook over low heat for 5 minutes; remove pot from heat and allow the chowder to sit for 10 minutes (the fish will finish cooking during this time).

Stir in the cream and taste for seasonings. If you are not serving the chowder within the hour, let it cool a bit, then refrigerate; cover the chowder after it has chilled completely. Otherwise, let it sit for up to an hour at room temperature, allowing the flavors to meld.

Reheat chowder over low heat; don't let it boil. Warm the salt-pork cracklings in a 200 degree F. oven for a few minutes.

Mound chunks of fish, onions, and potatoes into shallow bowls; ladle the broth around. Top chowder with the cracklings, parsley, and chives.

Serves 8 as a main course.

Strong Fish Stock

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 medium onions, very thinly sliced

4 stalks celery, very thinly sliced

2 medium carrots, very thinly sliced

2 dried bay leaves

1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves and stems

6 to 8 sprigs of fresh thyme

2 tablespoons black peppercorns

1 large (6 inches long or more) or 2 small (4 inches long or less) fish heads from cod or haddock, split lengthwise, gills removed, and rinsed clean

2-1/2 to 3 pounds of fish frames (bones) from sole, flounder, bass, and/or halibut, cut into 2-inch pieces and rinsed clean

About 2 quarts hot or boiling water

Kosher or sea salt

Melt the butter in a heavy 7- to 8-quart stockpot over medium heat. Add onions, celery, carrots, bay leaves, parsley, thyme, and peppercorns and cook, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until the vegetables become very soft without browning, about 8 minutes.

Place the fish head(s) on the vegetables and stack the fish frames evenly on top. Cover the pot tightly, letting the bones sweat for 10 to 15 minutes, or until they have turned completely white.

Add enough very hot or boiling water to just barely cover the bones. Give the mixture a gentle stir and allow the brew to come to a simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes, uncovered, skimming off any white foam that comes to the surface, trying not to take any herbs, spices, or vegetables with it.

Remove pot from the stove, stir stock again, and allow it to steep for 10 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer and season lightly with salt. If you are not going to be using the stock within the hour, chill it as quickly as possible. Cover the stock after it is thoroughly chilled (it will have a light, jellied consistency) and keep it refrigerated for up to three days, or freeze for up to two months.

Makes about 2 quarts.

Recipes adapted from '50 Chowders: One-Pot Meals - Clam, Corn & Beyond,' by Jasper White

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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