It's no secret that New Englanders have a particular reverence for chowders of all kinds, and on dreary winter days like those we've been getting, there's nothing we crave more. And with good reason! Whether it's a creamy oyster soup or a chunky broth of fish and potatoes, the simple pairing of starch with seafood restores the spirit and warms us to our toes.
Chowders are also a great way to support local fisheries during what is an off-peak purchasing season in many areas of the country. Check out your local markets to see what's fresh or find out what seafoods are recommended for your region on the Seafood Watch List put out by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
New England Fish Chowder Serves 4-6
2 oz (2-3 strips) bacon, diced 2 medium yellow onions, diced 2 large russet potatoes, peeled and cubed 1 teaspoon salt 1 bay leaf 2 tsp thyme 1 1/2 - 2 cans (16 oz) light-amber beer (like Miller, Budweiser, or Busch)--enough to cover 2 1/2 cups milk (use whole or 2% milk for best taste and texture) 2 lbs fresh, lean white fish (like haddock, flounder, sole, or tilapia), cut into palm-sized chunks. Salt and pepper to taste Saltines, oyster crackers, or a hunk of freshly made No-Knead Bread for garnish
In a heavy soup pot or Dutch oven, cook the bacon over medium-high heat until it's crisp and has released most of its fat. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and set it aside.
Lower the heat to medium and add the onions. Stir the onions occasionally until they are soft and translucent, but not browned--about ten minutes. (If the onions start to brown, lower the heat a bit.) Add the potatoes, 1 teaspoon of salt, bay leaf and thyme. Cook for a few minutes until the potatoes are soft just around the edges, then add enough of the beer to cover the onions and potatoes. Simmer until the potatoes are tender--about 15 minutes.
Set the fish on top of the potatoes and onions. Cover the pot and continue simmering until the fish is opaque and just barely breaks apart under pressure--about 10 minutes. Pour the milk over the soup and stir gently with a wooden spoon, being careful not to break the fish apart too much at this point. Bring the soup to a gentle simmer, and cook for another 15-30 minutes. Stir in the reserved bacon and break apart the fish into bite-sized chunks. Remove the bay leaf and salt and pepper to taste.
This soup is even better the next day and will keep up to a week. If you want to freeze some of the soup, remove the portion you want to freeze before adding the milk.