It’s a rare thing – it may even be a first – for the Single Gourmet Traveller to do a culinary Atlantic crossing and cook ‘American’. I put this in quote marks as I certainly don’t wish to offend my American followers and readers and claim any authenticity as I have little experience when it comes to the USA. I’ve only been there once: a rather fleeting trip through Boston, New York (only 2 days – I have to go back!!) and Pennsylvania in 2008. The trip began in Boston and I have to say I just LOVED that city and would definitely like to return one day. It was a city where I felt instantly at home. One of the things I did while there was follow the Freedom Trail and ended up having lunch in the Quincy Market Place in Faneuil Hall. And, of course, being in Boston, there was only one thing I could choose: Clam Chowder! It was such a familiar name to me yet actually I realised I hadn’t a clue what it was, other than a thick soup, so I was quite surprised by the milky-creaminess of it.
Like most classic dishes, the origins of chowders are fraught with debate. It seems though they were very much a poor man’s food originally, made by fishermen throwing bits of fish into a large pot to make a soup. It is thought the word may come from the Breton (French) word ‘chaudree’, a thick fish soup, or even ‘chaudiere’ which refers to the stove on which such dishes were cooked. Traditionally they were thickened with ship’s biscuit but now more commonly with potato and sweetcorn. Thick and rich, they are a meal in themselves.
Chowder entered my head as something to cook today by way of sifting through collected recipes in a file of mine, torn from newspapers and magazines, and finding a Nigel Slater recipe. I fancied fish. I’ve had rather a lot of Bolognese ragu in the past week, by default rather than plan. It was time for a major change and I felt in need of fish. However, with the persistent howling gales and heavy rain that have afflicted this island for the past few weeks, something warming and comforting seemed in order. When I saw Nigel’s recipe, it seemed just the thing. I bought some undyed smoked haddock from my local fishmonger, Sandy’s, in Twickenham.
As you’ll see, it’s the real thing: no horrid yellow dye! Also need were a few waxy new potatoes, a couple of leeks, 1 corn on the cob with kernels stripped (I cheated and used a tin!), some parsley and thyme. The first thing to do is finely slice the leeks and put in a pan with a big chunk (about 25g) butter and a few sprigs of fresh thyme (I used some from a bunch I’d dried) and leave to sweat in a pan with a tightly fitting lid, on a low heat, for about 10 minutes until soft.
Now add the potatoes, peeled and chopped into bite-sized pieces together with the corn. Give it a good stir and then cover again for another 10 minutes – stirring occasionally so it doesn’t stick – so the potatoes cook.
Meanwhile, put a large fillet of smoked haddock in a pan with enough milk to cover and a bay leaf and a few peppercorns. (I decided to cut my large fillet in half after taking the photo below.)
Bring to a simmer and leave to cook for about 5-7 minutes until the fish is tender. Remove the fish and skin and break into large pieces. Reserve the milk.
When the vegetables are tender pour in the reserved milk (removing the bay leaf and peppercorns). Then add the haddock pieces. Give it all a good stir. If necessary, add a little more milk or hot water to loosen up. Bring to a simmer and add a big handful of chopped parsley. Check seasoning; you may not need extra salt depending on the saltiness of the smoked haddock but a generous grind of black pepper is good.
Now your chowder is ready to eat straight away or warm through a little later if you’ve prepared in advance (as I had!) I served in a deep soup bowl with nothing else. It really needs no extras and is, indeed, a meal in itself.
It was so delicious and absolutely perfect for a dark evening when the wind is blowing strongly outside and rain batters the windows. It’s not very daughter-friendly – my daughter Nicola can’t drink milk – so you really have to like a creamy, milky dish. Sometimes people even add cream but I think my usual semi-skimmed milk was plenty creamy enough for me. The flavour was fabulous though: the milk and vegetables taking up the slightly salty, smoky haddock flavour. There were soft chunks of fish to slide into your mouth along with chunks of potato with just enough bite left; bright kernels of corn to add sweetness and I’d added enough black pepper to give it a nice spicy lift. What a perfect supper for a winter’s day!