Quick and easy to prepare, packed with flavor, and simple enough to prepare in any seagoing galley, chowder has been a mainstay in sailor’s diets for centuries. Indeed, references to hearty, healthy chowders date back to the 16th century in both France and Britain. Even the name reflects this connection: The word chowder is said to come from the French word chaudière, referring to the cauldron or kettle used by French fishermen to make seafood stews. Seafood chowders made their first North American appearance more than 250 years ago when seafarers from England and France first arrived in coastal Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and New England.
Today this simple dish—traditionally made with fish, salt pork, potatoes, onions, salt, pepper, milk or cream, and thickened with crushed hard tack, crackers, or a roux—provides a welcome alternative to pan-frying or barbecuing your fresh catch. It is also a wonderful way to use those bits and pieces of seafood tucked away in the far reaches of your freezer.
One of the best things about chowder is that you can make it as thick or as thin as you like. Too thin? Whisk together some flour and milk and slowly stir the slurry into the pot. Too thick? Add more milk or cream. And if unexpected guests stop by and decide to stay for dinner, just add more liquid, adjust the seasonings, and serve up a slightly thinner soup.
5 strips of bacon, sliced into
1 large onion, peeled and finely diced
(about 2 cups)
1 stalk celery, finely diced (optional)
3 tablespoons flour
4 cups milk
3 medium potatoes (about 1 ounds),
peeled and diced intoinch pieces
2 bay leaves (optional)
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 cup corn, fresh, frozen, or canned
1 pound seafood (salmon, cod, halibut, clams, shrimp, scallops, or a combination) skinned, boned or shelled, and cut into 1- to 2-inch pieces
1 cup cream (or milk))
Chopped fresh parsley for garnish
Over medium-high heat place the bacon in a large stockpot or Dutch oven and cook, stirring frequently until the bacon is just beginning to brown, about 6 to 8 minutes. Remove the bacon to a paper towel and set aside.
Stir in the onions (and celery if using) and cook until onions are soft. Reduce the heat to medium and slowly stir in the flour. Cook for 1 minute. Gradually stir in the milk and cook, whisking constantly, until slightly thickened, about 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the potatoes and bay leaves.
Bring to the brink of boiling then reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 12 to 15 minutes. Return the bacon to the pot and stir in the corn and the seafood. Simmer until the fish and/or seafood is just cooked, being careful not to overcook. Stir in the cream or milk (if using) and taste. Adjust the seasoning as required. Remove the bay leaves, garnish with parsley, and serve with crusty bread or crispy crackers.
For more variations on this classic recipe, pick up a copy of the July/August 2016 issue of PassageMaker magazine.
Showdown: Chowder Versus Soup
What makes a chowder a chowder and not a soup or a stew? That question has been debated for centuries. In fact, an article in the March 11, 1912 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle stated, “Originally a chowder was a sailor’s fish stew made only of salt fat pork, potatoes, onions, water, crackers or ship biscuit, salt and pepper. It was cooked slowly in a covered iron pot and was certainly a hearty, wholesome dish. This ancient dish has undergone alleged improvement, and so many combinations have originated in the fertile brains of modern cooks that we now have quite a lengthy list of excellent American chowders of fish, flesh, fowl and vegetables.”
Now, more than a century later, we are still debating and we’re still experimenting with chowders: tomato corn chowder, Manhattan clam chowder, smoky pork and corn chowder, chunky chicken chowder. The recipes are wildly different but they all have one thing in common…they’re straightforward and tasty ways to feed a hungry crew at sea or on shore.