"Chowder" is one of those food words that's almost (but probably not quite) as much fun to learn about as it is to eat.
Coined in America in the early 1700s, according to the dictionary, the word "chowder" stems from for the pot it was traditionally cooked in: A French "<I>chaudière</i>," a three-legged iron cooking pot that sat over a fire. The French in turn reportedly inherited the term from the Latin word for "cauldron." It's related to words meaning "hot" but not, oddly enough, to "chow," which comes with another story entirely.
As with so many older food words that have had plenty of time to evolve in everyday use, chowder is loosely defined. It's a thick soup or stew that may or may not (but usually does) contain clams or other shellfish or fish, usually potatoes and often milk or cream. But you'll often see corn chower, occasionally chicken or even more uncommon base ingredients. Believe it or not, a Google search for "tofu chowder" brings up 927 hits.
And then there's the religious debate between the partisans of New England clam chowder (with milk or cream) and Manhattan chowder (tomato-based, thin and red). I like them both, but when there's a choice, I almost always favor the white, creamy New England style, and enjoy it about equally well whether it's based on clams or fish. Tofu? No thanks ... I'll save that for Asian dishes.
A pot of chowder comes about as close as any dish to truly warming comfort food, and as our extended mild autumn here shows signs of finally turning wintry soon, this seemed like an excellent time to fashion a pot. This one uses cod, one of my favorite fish, but you can substitute just about any white, flaky fish or sweet shellfish.
Like many chowder recipes, this version starts with a little meat in the form of diced pancetta that's rendered of its fat to provide your sauteeing medium and contribute delicious salty bits. Salt pork is more traditional, but I like the Italian touch that pancetta brings to dinner. You could use American bacon, but I'm not sure that its strongly smoked flavor - as addictive as it is - would work in chowder for me.
This recipe uses milk, not cream, an alternative that makes a slightly thinner, less calorific and more traditional soup; according to food historians, our great-grandparents invariably used milk in New England clam chowder. Cream is said to be a modern addition, put in to please the tourists.
It doesn't take much more than a bowl of chowder to make an evening meal. A salad or green vegetable, some crusty bread or a bowl of oyster crackers, and you're good to go. A rich white wine on the side is optional, but mighty nice.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
1 ounce (30g) pancetta
Sweet onion, enough to make about 2 ounces chopped
1 clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon (3g) fresh minced thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dried
1 baking potato, enough to make about 1 cup (240g) diced
2 cups fish stock or clam juice
1 cup milk
12 ounces cod fillet
1 tablespoon (15g) chopped flat-leaf parsley
1. Dice the pancetta and cook it over medium heat in a heavy sauce pan or soup pot, using no additional fat, until the pancetta is crisp and brown and has rendered its fat.
2. Chop the onion and garlic and brown them with the pancetta in the rendered fat. Add the thyme.
3. Peel the potato and cut it into small dice. Put the fish stock or clam juice (I used reconstituted Minor's band clam "base") and the potatoes and bring to a boil; reduce heat to low, add salt and white pepper to taste, and simmer gently for 20 to 30 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked through.
4. Cut the cod into 1/4-inch pieces and put them in the chowder, cooking just long enough to heat them through; avoid over-cooking. Stir in the milk and bring back to heat. Chop the parsley and add it just before serving.
Any rich white with a reasonable level of acidity will fare well here, from a good Chardonnay or Pinot Blanc to the full-bodied whites of Southern France and Southern Italy. I went the latter route this time around with a medium-bodied, aromatic <b>Santa Lucia 2005 "Gazza Ladra" Fiano</b> from Puglia in Southern Italy.