I love a bowl of fish chowder on a cold night, with a garlicy crouton floating on top and a glass of crisp white wine on the side. What I dislike are those overthickened chowders you're too often served that are made from a frozen base, tasting more of undercooked flour than of the sea.
This version is a combination of fancy fish and shellfish chowder I used to eat at a long-gone restaurant called Tapas in Cambridge, and my grandmother's comforting New England-style fish soup. I've kept the diced vegetables and pancetta from Tapas, and the technique and thin but savory broth from my grandmother. This isn't quite as rich as a restaurant chowder, but its still a once-in-a-blue-moon soup because of all that cream. A small bowl makes a good serving.
The chowder can also be made without the pancetta, like my grandmother did it. What's crucial is good fish, and some fish or clam broth that's honest and briny, without additives or too much salt. A fish market may be able to sell you fish stock/broth or clam juice; you can sometimes find frozen fish broth; and the clam juice from Whole Foods is very good. If you're using bottled clam juice, don't salt the chowder as much as you would if you were using fish stock. I usually serve this several hours or the day after preparing, to let the flavors blend.
Fish Chowder for a Sunday Night--Makes a big pot, 8 servings. Keeps for 2-3 days in the fridge
4 ounces good pancetta, cut into tiny dice
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large onions cut into half-inch dice
3 carrots, cut into tiny dice
2 stalks celery, cut into tiny dice
4 Tbs. flour
6 to 8 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed and chopped (or 1 tsp dried)
2 dried bay leaves
4-6 large Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped into 1-inch pieces
4 cups good fish stock or clam juice (Look in Whole Foods or a fish market)
1 cup dry white wine
water as needed
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 pounds skinless haddock or cod fillets cut in big pieces, pinbones removed
1 1/2 cups heavy cream (or 1/2 and 1/2 if you must)
a handful of chopped parsley
1. Heat a 4- to 6-quart heavy pot over medium heat and add the diced pancettta. Cook until a crisp golden brown, but be careful to not let it burn.
2. Add the butter, onions, carrots, celery, and thyme to the pot and sauté, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, for about 8 minutes, until the onions are softened but not browned. Add the flour, stir well, let cook for a few minutes, but don't let it brown.
3. Add the potatoes, bay leaves, wine and stock. If the broth doesn’t cover the potatoes, add just enough water to cover them. You want vegetables covered in broth, but not swimming in it. Turn up the heat and bring to a boil, cover, and cook the potatoes vigorously for about 10-15 minutes, until they are soft but not mushy. Reduce the heat to low and season assertively with salt and pepper (the saltiness will be absorbed by the fish and cream) Add the fish fillets and cook over low heat for 5-10 minutes. Stir in one cup of the cream and taste for salt and pepper, gently simmer another few minutes, then remove the pot from the heat and allow the chowder to sit for 10 minutes (the fish will finish cooking during this time, you can stir gently as needed to break it up). If desired, add the rest of the cream.
4. Let it cool a bit, then refrigerate.
5. When ready to serve, reheat the chowder over low heat; don’t let boil. Ladle into wide bowls, top with a fresh crouton, and garnish with chopped parsley. Serve with love and a glass of wine.