Monday, April 21, 2014
A Magical Chowder
You realize you've reached another stage in life when a new dryer vent makes you really excited. Not quite as excited as, say, a new car, but pretty much right up there with the nicest of new kitchen appliances.
I am that person who always envisions the worst-case scenario. When I saw that our dryer vent had cracked and that lint was built-up inside, I was pretty sure the house would burn down in a matter of hours. (And to be honest, it's a legitimate hazard.)
Ken the Wonder Carpenter came by this weekend to help. I figured the whole thing would take 20 minutes, tops. The more realistic Clare said two hours, which ended up being closer to the truth.
The vent goes through a hole in the floor and into the farthest corner of the basement, along a narrow ledge over the concrete cistern that used to hold water for the house. You have to crawl, there's very little light, the angle was awkward, the aluminum tubing grumpy and cumbersome, and Ken's rotator cuff barely functioning and in need of immediate surgery.
You see someone labor over your house, or something as mundane as a dryer vent, and you feel terrible. I asked if I could bring him some Claramels, a glass of tequila, anything. He politely declined. Then I remembered lunch. "I was going to make fish chowder, are you hungry?" It turned out he was.
Upstairs I ran and set to work making one of my favorite simple soups. And because I have a book due this fall and should be working on it instead, I thought I'd share my soup recipe with you, thus making you complicit in my own procrastination. (Thanks, by the way.)
Loosey goosey ingredients
Either 2 slabs bacon or 1 Tbsp butter
Nice big onion
Garlic clove (optional)
One large potato per person + 2 for the pot
Bay leaf, a dash of thyme, wee bit o'nutmeg, a soupçon of smoked Spanish paprika at the end
Broth - can be water, chicken, clam juice, seafood, vegetable, or some combination thereof, enough to cover the potatoes
Half and half - quarter cup or thereabouts, depending on the volume of the soup itself
Medium white fish - I used about 3/4 lb beautiful haddock filets, which fed 3 people and provided leftovers
So the principle here is to make an extremely easy and flexible soup base to which you can add pretty much anything you have on hand. You begin with a few nice slabs of bacon (or skip if you don't do the bacon thing), which you cut into small pieces and fry in a soup pot until crispy. Remove them with a slotted spoon and let drain on a paper towel.
Next, get a nice big onion and dice it into little bits. Drop them all into the bacon grease (or a tablespoon of butter, if you're just starting), reduce heat, and slowly stir until the onions relax and become translucent. The act of standing over a pot of simmering onions is, in itself, bliss.
During a brief break from your onion-stirring ecstasy, take out several potatoes (I like to figure one big potato per person, with two extras for good measure), scrub, and peel (if you like your potatoes peeled). Dice into small cubes - not as small as the onions, but easily bite-sized. If you're in a hurry, dice them smaller so they'll cook faster.
When the onions are nice and relaxed, put the potatoes in the pan and add somewhere between one and two quarts of liquid. I like to add just enough liquid to cover the potatoes but still keep them visible, if you know what I mean? You don't want to have to go diving for your lunch.
What kind of liquid, you ask? It can be anything. Sometimes I do a mix of clam juice and water, other times I'll do straight chicken broth. Vegetable broth would be wonderful. Water alone can be a little sad, but if that's all you have, don't despair. Just add more onion, perhaps a crushed clove of garlic or two. I also like to add at least one bay leaf. Sometimes, if I'm feeling wild, I'll add a dash of thyme, maybe even oregano. You can also add a few grains of nutmeg, but be very sparing. It can go from charming to overbearing in no time at all.
Now, put on the lid and let everything simmer until the potatoes are soft. Once they're done, I like to crush a few of them with the back of my spoon to make the soup thicker, but it's entirely your call.
This whole cooking process should take about 18 minutes. (I say 15, Clare says 20.)
Our fish guy always tries to sell us on a pound of fish per person. For something like haddock, that's insane unless you're a competitive eater or are training for the Olympics. For three people, our two filets (probably 2/3 pound total) did the trick. Any white fish of medium constitution works well here.
Cut the fish into reasonable chunks and drop them into the soup. Push them down into the liquid, turn the heat either off completely or to the barest wisp of warmth, cover, and let the fish poach in the hot broth. Usually I grow impatient and turn the heat up a few times, just to bring the soup back to warm, but you don't really want a rolling boil here. You want a leisurely poach.
As soon as the fish has gone from translucent to white, but still has a soft, yielding texture, it's done.
For the piece de resistance, I like to drizzle a little half-and-half over the whole thing, maybe 1/4 cup maximum. Enough to bring the whole mix together into something that feels creamy and decadent. This is a deep, smoky, flavorful broth with creamy overtones and magical healing powers. Sometimes at the very end I like to dip my finger in the tin of Spanish smoked paprika, then flick it over the top of my soup for an extra smoky zing.
We enjoyed ours with a plate of sliced tomatoes. Ken the Wonder Carpenter lapped up two big bowls of it and was so refreshed, he promptly went outside and cut up the big spruce tree that had fallen in our side yard over the winter.
Now it's your turn. Go forth! Let me know what you put in yours, and how you like it.
p.s.-We had enough left over to enjoy a second bowl of soup yesterday, which is when I remembered I had a camera and actually took a picture of it. Sometimes, you need to eat first, shoot later.