At its core, chowder is simply a fish stew. Bouillabaisse, a Mediterranean fish stew, is really just another kind of chowder, differentiated by the regional ingredients associated with the recipe and maybe a bit more refined in its seasoning. Brittany has its own version of fish stew called cotriade, a simpler version and one that’s based on fish found in the waters of the north-east coast of France. Matelote is another French fish chowder made in the inland regions and thus uses fresh-water fish. It also traditionally includes a generous portion of wine to make the broth and so it is a kind of fisherman’s coq-au-vin. Send the fishermen down to Louisiana, throw some okra into the stew, add local fish like shrimp and crawfish and you have a fish stew called gumbo. This is not to say that the $35 bouillabaisse at Chez Françoise is going to look or taste anything like that $5 bread bowl of chowder you pick up at Jolly Roger’s Bait and Sushi Shop. Chowder, like any other stew, is not fast food. It takes care and attention to detail if you want to really hear the ocean’s roar in your soup bowl.
There is some speculation how the word “chowder” found its way into our language. One common theory is that it comes from the French name for a stew pot “chaudière”. It’s a good theory. On the other hand, the fish stew that the Mediterraneans called “bouillabaisse” was known to the French of the Atlantic coast as “chaudrées”. It is much less of a stretch to imagine the French Canadian fishermen sharing a pot of chaudrées with their neighboring English-speaking fishermen and voilà, you have your New England Chowder (at least in name).
For fish stew at its simplest, you start with fish – fresh fish. Make a fish stock with the fish-head and bones, chop up the remaining fish and cook it in the broth along with bay leaf, onion, garlic, green peppers, celery, tomatoes and potatoes. Season it with parsley, salt and pepper. Fills you up from your head to your toenails.
The New England version of clam chowder adds dairy and does not need to be a thick as wallpaper paste. The broth can be made from the water used when boiling the clams until they open. Salt pork is another essential ingredient to good clam chowder, sautéing the onions along with the salt pork. Add the broth, throw in the vegetables (no tomatoes in this one) and add the shelled clams back into the stew. Separately, steam milk and cream. When the potatoes are tender, remove the stew from the heat and add the heated milk and cream mixture. Thick, but not pasty. Makes you want to cry for more.
Substitute oysters for the clams and you have Oyster Stew. Start with a dark roux, use shrimp, crab, oyster and/or crawfish and a good amount of okra and you have gumbo – leave out the dairy in this one. (Roux could take up an entire page in itself. If you don’t have any Louisiana relatives to get the technique from, you’re at a distinct disadvantage.)
Make your fish stew with a mixture of fresh fish and shellfish, all the vegetables of your basic fish stew, add saffron, fennel and leek, pour it over a fresh slice of baguette rubbed with garlic and you have the fixin’s for bouillabaisse. Makes you hear the ocean’s roar.
Because of the regional uniqueness of each kind of fish in the stew or chowder, the recipes don’t always translate successfully to other regions. You’d be hard-pressed to find good fresh bayou crawfish, and more likely to find the much less tasty farm-raised ones here in Southern California. The difference is significant. So don’t worry about authenticity. Get the freshest local fish you can and stew it together with the freshest vegetables you can find, then see what happens when you enjoy good fish chowder.
*(Good Fish Chowder by Joe Hickerson; as heard on the CD Nautical, Pastoral & Pub Song by Riggy Rackin)
When not dining in exotic locales, Michael Macheret forages closer to home in the South Bay regions near Los Angeles