Paul Flynn: How to cook the perfect chowder – don’t use flour and keep it simple

Three comfort dishes: A chowder, a cheesy gratin and a chicken salad, all with a whiff of delicious smoke

Gratin of smoked mackerel and turnip with spiced pickled cucumber 

Gratin of smoked mackerel and turnip with spiced pickled cucumber 

 

In our Tannery Cookery School in Dungarvan I talk about the weather a lot. It’s not banter. It’s because weather and the seasons determine what we eat and when we eat it. What you eat also has everything to do with mood. On a cold and rainy day, after walking the dog, when you’re soaking and miserable, nobody wants a tomato salad. What you want is a bowl of chowder. Eating is logical, if we listen to our bodies.

What makes a chowder work is the magical combination of smoke and cream. That hint of familiarity is instantly reassuring. I like simplicity in my chowder, that’s why the base is just leek and potato. This is a combination that might not generate excitement; it is normally the lazy man’s soup. However when it is cooked with care, it is seafood’s best friend.

I don’t use flour as many a nice flavoured chowder has been ruined by having the texture of wallpaper paste.

The first dish I ever learned to make was gratin potatoes. A part-time job in a local restaurant gave me skills that allowed me to help at many a party where my gratin went down a storm.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love a gratin dauphinois. What you mightn’t know is that it makes a tremendous feed if you nestle something extra within it – in this case smoked mackerel and a bit of turnip. This recipe is adapted from one by the emperor of food writing Nigel Slater. If you exclude the mackerel, try adding celeriac, sweet potato or parsnip. It’s a tasty revelation.

I’m picky though, when it comes to smoke. I don’t love smoking for the sake of it, it needs to be subtle not overbearing. I wouldn’t eat smoked cheese even if Scarlett Johansson desperately wanted to feed it to me while staring at me lustfully at a post-Oscars party.

But the gentle silky notes of perfectly smoked chicken makes me swoon. Ummera is an amazing example. I pair it with a creamy blue cheese dressing, crunchy leaves, grapes, and toasted almonds for some diversion. It is like a Caesar salad’s more interesting cousin.

Cook these dishes, rub your bellies and think of me.

GRATIN OF SMOKED MACKEREL AND TURNIP WITH SPICED PICKLED CUCUMBER 

Serves six

Ingredients
400ml milk
200ml cream
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
600g potatoes, peeled and sliced thinly (a mandolin would be perfect for this job)
½ turnip, peeled and sliced thinly
Salt and pepper
1 tbsp creamed horseradish
2 fillets smoked mackerel, skin and bones removed, flaked
100g grated Cheddar cheese

For the spiced pickled cucumber:

100ml rice wine vinegar (white wine vinegar can substitute)
100ml water
100ml caster sugar
1cm piece ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 cucumber, peeled, halved lengthways and thinly sliced

Method

1 Preheat an oven to 180 degrees, or equivalent. 

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2 Place the milk, cream, crushed garlic, potatoes, turnip, salt and pepper into a large saucepan and slowly bring to the boil over a low heat. Stir a few times to make sure the potatoes are evenly coated with the milk/cream mixture.

3 Simmer for at least 20 minutes until the potatoes are just tender, taking care that the potatoes don’t stick to the bottom of the pan.

4 Stir in the horseradish.

5 Turn half the potato mixture into a shallow oven-proof dish.

6 Scatter the smoked mackerel over the potatoes. Spoon the remaining mixture on top.

7 Sprinkle the grated Cheddar over the potatoes.

8 Bake for about 35-40 minutes, until golden and bubbling.

For the pickled cucumber:

1 Bring the vinegar, water, sugar and ginger to the boil. 

2 Allow to cool.

3 Add the cucumber and keep in a sealed jar in the fridge until needed

4 This will keep for up to a week. I use the pickling liquid as the basis for a salad dressing with a little hint of cream to thicken.

Seafood chowder
Seafood chowder

SEAFOOD CHOWDER

Serves four

Ingredients
1 medium leek, trimmed, split lengthways, washed and sliced
50g butter
3 large potatoes, peeled and diced into 2cm chunks
800ml chicken stock (use veg stock if you wish)
1 fresh bay leaf – lightly crushed, if you have it
250g mixed fish, ideally salmon, smoked haddock and one white fish
250ml cream
Salt and pepper
Some chopped chives or dill to finish

Method

1 Put the leeks into a pot with the butter. Cover and cook on a low heat for five minutes to allow the leeks to steam in their own buttery juices.

2 Add the potatoes and chicken stock and the bay leaf.

3 Bring to the boil and simmer for 15-20 minutes until the potatoes start to break up, then add the fish and cream.

4 Cook gently for five more minutes, before seasoning wth salt and pepper.

5 When ready to serve, scatter over the chives or dill.

Smoked chicken, grape and Crozier Blue salad
Smoked chicken, grape and Crozier Blue salad

SMOKED CHICKEN, GRAPE AND CROZIER BLUE SALAD

Serves 2

Ingredients
50ml apple juice
2 heaped tbsp crème fraiche
Salt and pepper
4 Little Gem lettuce, trimmed, washed and dried
1 breast smoked chicken, thinly sliced
16 seedless grapes, halved
80g Crozier Blue or another ripe blue cheese, crumbled
A good pinch of flaked almonds, toasted

Method

1 Blend the apple juice with the crème fraiche, season and set aside.

2 When ready to serve, turn the lettuce in the dressing, making sure there is a light coating on every leaf. 

3 Assemble the salad with the leaves on the base, followed by the chicken, the grapes, the blue cheese and finally the almonds.

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