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Fish Chowder

So thick you can stand a spoon up in it.
So thick you can stand a spoon up in it.

When I was a kid, my family used to drive out to Lake Oswego once or twice a year to a restaurant called “The Sea Galley.” The inside was decked out in dark wood that had been treated to look like it was sea-worn, weathered brass portholes, random fishing nets, and orange buoys. The lighting was dim, the thin carpet a uniform scarlet. It was supposed to look authentic, and to a nine-year-old it did. I could imagine being a cabin boy in there, or a sailor in a galleon treading the waves. It was also the first place I ever remember eating clam chowder.

Many bowls of the stuff later (the recipe for which, I am fairly certain, is a divine gift from the sea god Himself) and I now know that what I was eating there wasn’t chowder at all but a thin potato soup, barely seasoned with paprika, with a few nubbly, rubbery chunks of clam perhaps floating in my bowl if I was really lucky. Even so, the savory undercurrent of real clam chowder was present in this weak imitation. My young palate was hooked from the get-go.

No, I didn’t plan that pun. They just come out of me. It’s a gift.

By that point in my life, I had already learned to love seafood. My parents introduced me to sushi at age two or three; my favorite was the octopus. At a buffet or potluck I went straight for the cocktail shrimp. Don’t even get me started on crab legs. Fish and chips. Salmon. I still ask for the skin off of the salmon, and have not been invited back to at least one friend’s house for dinner on account of it. I believe the word they used to describe me as I rolled it up and tucked right in was, “barbarian.”

I’ve been working hard on revising a play over the winter break, and I needed a little bit of comfort food tonight. It being winter, either a soup or a stew seemed perfect. My wife got me a great cookbook for Christmas: Dungeness Crabs & Blackberry Cobblers: The Northwest Heritage Cookbook, by Janie Hibler. I checked there and found recipes for both stew and chowder, both of which look a-ma-ha-hazing. I plan to try them soon. However, instead of going that direction tonight, I went instead with a cookbook that’s more of a go-to in my house: Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking, by Julia Child. Wacky Aunt Julia (as I am fond of referring to Ms. Child, rest her soul) has rarely steered me wrong, and her recipe for chowder was, for a change, not as complex as others. She gives a base recipe for the chowder base, and then directions for adding other ingredients (clams, fish, corn, or vegetables) as one sees fit.

I made my chowder with cod, and let me tell you, it ended up very close to a fish stew. Slices of onion, lots of yukon gold potatoes, and thick pieces of fish made for a very hearty soup. It’s the sort of thing you’d want to eat after spending two weeks on a fishing trawler. Or digging ditches. Or performing rewrites on a play, eight hours a day, for the last three days. Or cowering under your covers in the fetal position due to a monstrous attack of depression. You get the idea. This is a soup that lets you go on.

Here, then, is the recipe, courtesy of Wacky Aunt Julia. She would probably tsk-tsk me for using Matzo Meal instead of crushed crackers, bacon instead of pork belly or lardon, and (gasp!) canned corn. Oh well.

Fish Chowder

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 slices of bacon, cut into matchsticks.
  • 2 onions, sliced (about 1 pound).
  • 1 bay leaf.
  • 3/4 cup Matzo Meal.
  • 4 cups chicken stock.
  • 2 cups milk.
  • 2 large potatoes, or 3 medium, diced (about 1 pound).
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt (or so).
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper (or so).
  • 2 pounds cod.
  • 1 can corn kernels.
  1. Combine your stock and milk and heat just below the simmer.
  2. Melt the butter in your soup pot, and sauté the bacon pieces on medium until brown. Add the onions and the bay leaf and stir, coating them with the fat. Cover, reduce heat to low, and cook the onions for ten minutes.
  3. Add the Matzo Meal to your onions and stir, coating the onions and bacon. Add your hot liquid and potatoes, cover loosely, and raise heat to medium-low. Cook for twenty minutes.
  4. While the soup is cooking, drain your corn, debone your cod (that is NOT a euphemism), and cut it into two-inch chunks.
  5. At the end of twenty minutes, season your soup base with the salt and white pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Increase the heat to below simmer and add your cod and corn. Cook for five minutes. The cod should be completely white and opaque; take a piece out and double check, otherwise it’s not done.

That’s it. Happy eating!