A freestyle chowder


It is currently 34 degrees here in New York, the kind of clear, bright, bitingly cold sort of weather that inevitably results in streaming, red noses and dreams of blankets and books and steaming mugs of soup.

But not just any soup.

Walking to the grocery store, I became fixed on the idea of fish chowder – a rich, creamy, aromatic broth, studded with chunks of tender potato and flaky cod. I don’t know why. The only chowder I have ever eaten with any regularity is Taqueria Del Sol’s shrimp corn chowder, which, while delicious, isn’t the sippable soup I’m seeking.

I blame Sam Sifton for the idea. His charmingly conversational (and delightfully imprecise) speedy fish chowder has been floating around in my head – as much for its formatting as for the end result.

It spoke to me, this idea for a no-recipe recipe: just enough guidance to take out some of the fear and guesswork, leaving me the freedom to get creative and experiment without worrying about compromising the end result. Exactly the kind of soul-soothing comfort cooking I can get lost in – something that feels just as good as a warm blanket on a night like tonight.

Fish chowder, loosely

Yield: about 4 servings Time: about 1 hour 30 minutes Source: My version of this chowder by Sam Sifton

I started with the stock, perhaps three cups of a weak, mostly-vegetable-tasting chicken stock that has been languishing in the freezer since before we were married. I peeled the frozen chunks out of their ziplocks and tossed them into a saucepan to thaw. While I was in the freezer, I spotted some mushroom stems I’d frozen. I minced them up and tossed them in as well.

This is not, nor will it ever be fish stock, but I fortified the stock to disguise the chicken flavor. I minced up perhaps a quarter of my cod fillet and tossed it in the pot along with a couple smashed cloves of garlic and a few pinches of dried thyme. That sat on the back burner and simmered, very gently, while I chopped up everything else.

Everything else being two clementine-sized onions, a couple of carrots, and all the new potatoes I won’t need later in the week.

I chopped the onion into pieces roughly the size of a dime and then dumped them into a dutch oven set over medium heat, along with a couple glugs of olive oil and a pinch or two of salt. I let those go, stirring occasionally, while I chopped the carrots into quarter-inch-thick half-moons and the potatoes into chunks about the size of my first knuckle.

By the time the carrots and potatoes were ready to go in, the onions had gone translucent and smelled amazing. I tossed in the carrots and another pinch or two of salt, and let that go, stirring occasionally, until I started to see brown bits building up on the bottom of the pan.

At about this point, I remembered I wanted to add butter. I tossed in a tablespoon or so, let that melt, and discovered all my lovely fond had dissolved too. So I kept things cooking, stirring them occasionally, until the brown bits started to build up again. Once they did, I added three butter-knife tips full of smoked paprika and a quarter-sized wad of tomato paste. I stirred that around until the tomato paste broke up and the paprika perfumed my whole house.

Then, I added wine – just enough of a cheap-but-still-drinkable white to cover the bottom of my pot – and let that simmer away until the pan was nearly dry again.

Next came the stock. I strained it directly into the pot with the carrots and onions, making sure to press all the chunks left in the strainer to get every bit of the liquid out. I tossed in the potatoes, and then, since it didn’t look like enough liquid, a cup or two of water. And, for brightness, a few more glugs of wine.

I brought the whole thing up to a boil, then dropped it back to the barest simmer, letting it bubble away, uncovered, until I decided I wanted to go ahead and add the last of the bag of frozen corn – perhaps a cup or a cup and a half. Once it came back to a simmer, I just left it on the back burner until we were just about ready to eat.

By the time that happened, the broth had reduced by about half. I tasted it, added a bit more wine, and dumped in the cod, which I cut into one-inch chunks. I brought that back to a strong simmer over medium heat and let things cook together for five minutes or so – just until the fish was fully opaque.

Once the fish was done, I tasted again and adjusted – more salt, some pepper, a dash of fish sauce, a little more wine – and turned off the heat and swirled in a quarter cup or so of cream.

I served with a bit of chopped parsley, the rest of the wine, and my best attempt at toast.

(I am not good at toast. I’m learning.)

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By Jessi Spell

Jessi Spell

A culinary degree and two years of professional experience has not stopped Jessi from making stupid mistakes – she just makes them more efficiently. She habitually reads cookbooks before bed, loses track of time on Wikipedia, and yells at cooking shows like dads watching football. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband Jackson, five plants, and more cookbooks than a 600 square foot studio should hold.


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