One of the oldest and most delicious ways to cook fish is in a delicious chowder – a thick soup or stew made with ingredients like potatoes, onions, pork, herbs and seasonings.
The origins of the dish are still debated, but I like a story put forth in an 1890 edition of American Notes and Queries. The contributor of this account says the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow presented a fine chowder to a dinner guest from France and surprised the guest when he told him chowder was a French invention.
When asked to elaborate, Longfellow said that when Frenchmen settled in Canada, “Mother Necessity soon taught them how to stew clams and fish in layers with bacon, sea biscuits and other ingredients in a kettle.”
The French called the kettles “chaudiéres,” and it is a corruption of this name for the pots that gives us the word chowder.
Longfellow said this happened when the native Indians, joining the Frenchmen for meals, “heard the Gauls speak of the chaudiére and supposed it referred to the food,” calling it something like “chawder.”
“From there,” says the contributor, “our rock-ribbed Yankees entered the scene to corrupt the words further, and Americanize them more, so that … generations of Yankee tongues would ever repeat ‘chowder.’”
When we think of chowders today, most of us think of clam chowder – either the creamy milk-based New England clam chowder or the red-brothed Manhattan-style clam chowder made with tomatoes. It is quite likely, however, that chowders made with fish were the forerunners of clam chowder. Cod often was the main ingredient, but other fish also were used, along with salt pork for flavoring and crumbled ship’s biscuits used as thickeners.
Several sources say the oldest printed fish chowder recipe is this one, published in the Boston Evening Post on September 23, 1751:
First lay some Onions to keep the Pork from burning,
Because in Chouder there can be no turning;
Then lay some Pork in slices very thin,
Thus you in Chouder always must begin.
Next lay some Fish cut crossways very nice
Then season well with Pepper, Salt, and Spice;
Parsley, Sweet-Marjoram, Savory, and Thyme,Then Biscuit next which must be soak’d some Time.
Thus your Foundation laid, you will be able
To raise a Chouder, high as Tower of Babel;
For by repeating o’er the Same again,
You may make a Chouder for a thousand men.
Last a Bottle of Claret, with Water eno’ to smother ’em,
You’ll have a Mess which some call Omnium gather ’em.
By the mid-1800s, recipes like this had made chowder a mainstay throughout the northeastern United States. Layered chowders persisted in New England cooking to the turn of the 20th century because they represented a high-calorie, inexpensive and easy-to-prepare meal. But over the years, as chowders became popular from coast to coast, cooks fiddled with the ingredients and methods of cooking, creating a wide variety of chowders, each with its own unique flavor.
Here are recipes for several versions, each simple to prepare with ingredients you probably have at home. Give them a try and enjoy the belly-warming scrumptiousness this comfort food provides.
Dixie Catfish Chowder
Total time: 30 minutes
- ½ cup chopped onion
- 2 tablespoons bacon grease
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
- 2 cups uncooked, diced, peeled potatoes
- 1 cup boiling water
- 1 pound catfish fillets (or other whitefish), cut in bite-sized pieces
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup half-and-half
- 1 small (8.25-ounce) can of cream-style corn
- Bacon bits (optional)
1. In a cooking pot, sauté the onion in bacon grease until soft. Add salt, pepper, potatoes, water and fish. Cover and simmer 15 minutes or until potatoes are tender.
2. Add milk and corn. Heat thoroughly, until the fish flakes easily with a fork. Serve with bacon bits on top if desired.
Microwave Manhattan-Style Fish Chowder
Total time: 32 minutes
- ½ cup chopped green onions
- ¼ cup chicken broth
- 1 pound whitefish fillets, cut in bite-sized pieces
- 1 (24-ounce) can of vegetable juice cocktail
- 1 (12-ounce) can of whole kernel corn with sweet red peppers, drained
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- ⅛ teaspoon hot pepper sauce
1. In a 2-quart microwave-safe dish, combine the green onions and chicken broth. Cover and microwave on high for 2 minutes or until onion is tender.
2. Add the remaining ingredients, cover, and cook on high for 8 to 10 minutes or until fish flakes with a fork and chowder is heated through. Stir twice while cooking.
Pacific Northwest Salmon Chowder
Total time: 1 hour and 25 minutes
- ½ cup each chopped celery, onion and green pepper
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 (14.5-ounce) can of chicken broth
- 1 cup uncooked, diced, peeled potatoes
- 1 cup shredded carrots
- 1 ½ teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons fresh-ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon dill weed
- 3 cups half-and-half
- 2 cups fully cooked salmon chunks (trout may be substituted)
1. In a large saucepan, sauté celery, onion, green pepper and garlic in butter until the vegetables are tender. Add broth, potatoes, carrots, salt, pepper and dill. Bring to a boil.
2. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 45 minutes or until the vegetables are nearly tender. Stir in half-and-half and fish. Simmer for 15 minutes or until heated through.
Spicy Cajun Fish and Seafood Chowder
Total time: 50 minutes
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small sweet onion, diced
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
- 6 stalks celery, diced
- 4 medium russet potatoes, diced
- 4 cups chicken broth
- 2 (12-ounce) cans of tomato sauce
- 1 teaspoon each salt, black pepper
- 1 teaspoon Louisiana hot sauce
- 1 pound whitefish fillets, cut into chunks
- 1 pound fresh clams or mussels in the shell
- ½ pound fresh crawfish tails, peeled
1. In a large heavy pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic and red pepper flakes, and sauté over medium heat for about 5 minutes.
2. Add the celery and potatoes, stir and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Add the chicken broth, reduce heat and simmer until heated through.
3. Add the tomato sauce, cover and simmer 20 more minutes. Stir in the salt, pepper and hot sauce.
4. Add the fish and seafood to the pot and cook over medium heat until the clams/mussels have opened and the crawfish and fish are just cooked through. Serve piping hot.