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A fish stew, New England to the core

By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / July 13, 2011

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Chowder is the iconic native fish stew of New England, built with ingredients close at hand and simply simmered. It was a dish that centuries ago fishermen would make on board their boats with their own catch and women prepared without fuss in home kitchens.

Every fishing port around the world has its own fish soup. You could say that New England chowder is our bouillabaisse (French), our caldeirada (Portuguese), our zuppa di pesce (Italian), our jeongol (Korean). Many food historians trace the word chowder to the French chaudiere, a stew pot. It is possible that fishermen from Brittany brought their soup-making customs to Newfoundland, where they spread into the rest of Maritime Canada and New England.

Chowder was probably the best thing a galley cook could do with a limited larder and primitive kitchen. Ashore the dish evolved. By the mid-19th century, tomatoes and milk were both common additions. Tomato-based chowders caught on along the southern coast of New England, but were largely ignored by cooks north of Rhode Island. Tomatoes do change the essential character of the simple stew, while milk enhances the humble bowl, elevating it from soup to elixir.

A milky chowder should not be a mush and it should not be overly rich. While many people enjoy chowders that you can stand a spoon in, the thinner broths are far more appealing.

Begin by poaching skinless, boneless haddock, cod, hake, or cusk in lightly salted water. Save the broth; it is good fish stock.

You also need to render bacon, which is a good substitute for meaty old-time salt pork. Today’s salt pork is an inferior product, usually nothing more than pork fat and salt. Cook the onions with the smoky meat, then add them to the fish broth with potatoes cut into bite-size wedges.

Potatoes thicken chowder. Red skinned potatoes are best; waxy Yukon Gold will not break down or absorb any of the flavorful broth and starchy russets will crumble and dissolve.

Once the milk goes in (use only whole milk to give the pot some richness), return the fish to the soup, turn the heat to low and push the pot to the back of the stove to steep for a few minutes. Ladle it into warm bowls and top with crushed crackers, and, if you like, a chunk of butter.

For a lighter and more elegant chowder, leave out the milk and add saffron, then garnish the bowls with flat-leaf parsley, chopped chives, and smoky Spanish pimenton. In this case, you want thick slices of crusty bread.

Make it milky or pale golden with saffron. You’re dining on simple fare using the bounty of the sea.

Jonathan Levitt can be reached at jon.levitt@gmail.com.