For centuries, this recipe has been the basic formula for the classic fish chowders of New England. Fish chowders actually predate clam chowders and were the first types of chowders made in Colonial days. In the era when the cod family was the backbone of New England’s fishing economy, it was also the backbone of most fish chowders. As chowder’s popularity spread, so did the inclusion of other types of fish, though cod and haddock are still the most common choices today. They certainly make great fish chowders, but any type of lean, mild whitefish is perfectly suitable for this recipe. Many of the undervalued whitefish species, such as black sea bass, monkfish, tautog (blackfish), dogfish, and scup make sublime fish chowders too. Serves 6.
Editor's’ Note from contributing food editor Catherine Walthers: This recipe comes from Craig Fear’s newly published cookbook, New England Soups from the Sea, which contains some eighty locally sourced soup recipes that honor the coastal traditions of the Northeast (2022, Countryman Press). I came across this book when I was one of the judges for the Readable Feast Cookbook Program, which chooses the best cookbooks from New England each year. This book looked like a winner to me, with each page filled with stews, chowders, and bisques I would want to make myself. The other judges, including magazine editors, cookbook authors, and food stylists, agreed, awarding this book first prize in the single subject category and runner up for New England Book of the Year for 2022.
4ounces fatty slab bacon (about 4 large strips) or salt pork, roughly diced into 1/2- inch pieces
2 tablespoons butter, if needed
1 large or 2 medium yellow onions, roughly diced into 1/2– inch pieces
4 to 5 fresh thyme sprigs, leaves removed and stems discarded
2 dried bay leaves
4cups fish stock (see note)
1pound Yukon gold potatoes, roughly chopped into 1/2- inch cubes
2pounds any lean, mild whitefish fillets
1 to 2cups heavy cream and/or half- and- half
Optional seasonings, to taste:
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Salt pork cracklings or bacon bits
Fresh chives, chopped
Fresh parsley, chopped
Heat the bacon in a medium stock pot over low heat until a few tablespoons of fat render out. Raise the heat to medium and brown the meatier pieces, being careful not to burn them. Remove the browned pieces with a slotted spoon but leave the fat in the pot. Before serving the chowder, you can reheat the crispy browned cracklings from the salt pork or the bits from the bacon and add them as a topping.
Add the butter, if needed, for additional cooking fat. Add the onions, thyme, and bay leaves. Sauté about 5 minutes, until the onions are softened.
Add the fish stock and bring to a boil.
Add the potatoes, cover the pot, reduce heat, and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes, until the potatoes are cooked through.
Add salt to taste.
Add the fish and simmer gently for a few minutes. Remove the pot from the heat, cover, and let the chowder sit until the fish is cooked through. Thicker and denser pieces of fish will need a little more time to cook than thinner and flakier pieces.
Once the fish is cooked, add 1 cup of the heavy cream, stir gently, and taste. Add up to 1 more cup of heavy cream or half-and-half to desired taste.
Ladle into individual bowls and add optional seasonings to taste.
Fish stock note: New England Soups from the Sea contains 7 recipes for different types of fresh seafood stocks, and they are used as the foundation for many of the chowders, bisques, and stews in the book. But making a seafood stock can be intimidating for some, so author Craig Fear offers suggested alternatives and one favorite store-bought fish stock. For this fish stew, if you are not making a fresh seafood stock, he recommends either using bottled clam juice or a store-bought fish stock called Aneto Fish Broth, available in some markets and online. Fear says he was “actually shocked by how good this product tastes.” He suggests avoiding pretty much every other commonly found commercial fish stock such as Imagine or Kitchen Basics. Fear’s full blog on the Best Store-bought Seafood Stocks can be read in full here.
Craig Fear is a food writer, blogger, and cookbook author. A certified Nutrition Therapy Practitioner, he shares recipes and health tips on his website, Fearless Eating. He lives in Southampton, Massachusetts.