Chowder it seems means many things to many people. It’s a minefield of ideals and opinions cooks and chef’s hotly contest and debate which ingredients should or shouldn’t be used and everyone seems to have an award winning recipe.
To some a chowder is strictly vegetarian using only the freshest vegetables from the season such as sweet corn or potato. Others protest that it must be a seafood or shellfish broth that has its roots in France, and even its very name may confirm this as a chaudiere was a cauldron style pot used in fishing communities in France for communal cooking.
It was very economical and nourishing. This form of communal cooking was thought to of originated in the Breton coastal region of France who then brought this custom to Newfoundland, where it is thought to of spread to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and New England.
So it’s origins were firmly rooted in peasant cuisine with some old recipes using slightly soured milk and ground up saltine crackers to give thickness to the soup.
NewEngland chowder uses salt pork, clams and diced potato in a mixed cream and milk base with a little butter. Manhattanclamchowder substitutes chopped tomatoes for the milk and cream and typically leaves out the potatoes.
Another fact confirming chowders French origin is perhaps a fish soup called “chaudree” from the coastal regions at Charente-Maritime and Vendee.
The concept of chowder is simple; it’s a one pot meal solution using a variety of economical ingredients to create something of sustenance which is tasty and therefore favourably suited to peasant communities of old.
But chowder can be so much more…..once described by a critic as “a heart warming broth which cradles you, giving a silky seductive kiss that oozes a warming glow to your toes”. It really is central heating for the soul, and a good bowl of chowder can bring a little sunshine to the darkest of days.
Back in kitchen we process a lot of fish, hundreds of kilos through the summer months. We therefore have a good supply of what we call stockfish that is all the bits and pieces left over from portioning including bones, skin and heads. All of this is frozen whilst at its freshest ready to use in our chowder until we have 30-40 kilos of stockfish. We then place the frozen fish in a massive 80 litre sauce pan and start the two day process that is our signature chowder.
For the first stock we cut about 3 kilos of vegetable mirepoix which is a French culinary term for roughly diced: carrot, onion, celery and leek then we add herbs, spices and aromats to include fennel seed, bayleaf, peppercorns, clove and star anise. Then parsley stalks and some garlic cloves the pan is then filled to the top with cold water and simmered for 4-5 hours but never boiled!
All impurities are carefully skimmed off during this stage. Then all the fish is removed and the stock is strained twice. This stock is de-canted into several containers left to cool and then refrigerated until the following day.
Cut a brunoise of vegetables about 3 kg to include: carrot, onion, celery and leek (brunoise is a French culinary term and means cutting the smallest dice humanly possible with just a knife!) This is quite slow and even an experienced chef will find this painful. (be warned) it is worth it though.
It’s worth saying at this stage that we use only the very best air dried salted pancetta which is very lightly smoked, we cut this into thumbnail size lardons and fry them gently in a little oil so that they render down release their own oil and impart flavour. We then cook our brunoise of vegetables in this forming the chowder base.
Fresh aromats are added to the base including bayleaf and a bundle of herbs tied with string so they can be easily fished out when they’ve done their job these include: Thyme, Parsley and Tarragon. The cold fish stock is then added along with some 1/4 inch diced potato and brought to a simmer (but again no boiling!).
Add some cream to the broth and continue to cook until the potatoes are fully cooked and are starting to break. Taste, season with only white pepper and fish sauce (nam pla) initially this should provide enough saltiness.
Leave stand, we use modified potato starch thickening granules in the restaurant they are neutral and carry flavour well. Last but not least freshly chopped parsley, chives and tarragon are added off the heat at the end of cooking. This base mixture is then portioned up and can be frozen or refrigerated.
We then sautee off a selection of fish, scallops and king prawns with maybe a few mussels, clams or in shell Penclawdd cockles add to this our chowder base mix and maybe some marsh samphire and there you have it our signature chowder.
It’s worth noting that we only make this in industrial size quantities, you can obviously scale this back to just a few portions at home. What I’ve hopefully done is to give you the gist of the process.