Let's talk stew. More specifically, fish stew. The wide world of fish-based stews can be a confusing and intimidating place to the uninitiated, and my goal here today has nothing to do with clearing any of that up. Sorry, but that's for another post. Today, I'm going to add another chapter (or maybe more like a footnote) to the great debate that rages between the opposing camps of clam chowder aficionados.
On one side you've got your New England-style chowder lovers, with their potatoes and a base of cream and/or milk. On the other side you've got your Manhattan-style devotees, with their thin broth full of tomato (apparently attributable to the influence of the large Portuguese population of Rhode Island).While I do sincerely enjoy both styles, the Manhattan version seems more like a Cioppino; no potato, lots of tomato. When contemplating the deliciousness of an honest chowder, I tend to align myself with the dairy and potato heavy New England camp. With that said, I'd like to throw another contender into the fray, for it is truly an entity that out-greats the greats when it comes to fish stews. It too, is closely aligned with the creamy goodness of New England, but it leaves the clams behind, and for something truly extraordinary, looks to the fragrant world of SMOKED FISH. This is something you must try. It's so simple, so satisfying, so much more that just the sum of its parts.
Melt a couple tablespoons of butter in a good heavy pot (the word chowder comes from a long line of words that refer to the heavy pot in which it is prepared, most recently the French chaudiere). Sweat some diced bacon in the butter until golden, and then throw in a handful of minced onion and a few cloves of chopped garlic. Next, sprinkle a couple heaping tablespoons of flour over everything and stir well for a minute or two. Whisk in a pint or so of good fish stock or clam broth, then a pint of whole milk. Bring it to a simmer before tossing in a couple of cups of diced red potatoes. When the potatoes are almost tender, it's time to add the fish, approximately two to three cups worth. When I make my version I stick with smoked whitefish and canned smoked oysters, but you can use any smoked seafood you like. Simmer for another five or ten minutes before finishing with a bit of heavy cream and some fresh ground pepper. Serve with oyster crackers, crusty bread, and a bottle of Tabasco. I'm pretty sure you'll agree with me that this chowder trumps all others.