Simple cod chowder: a quick dish full of flavour

JP McMahon: Many think that chowder needs a variety of fish and shellfish, but this is not the case

In his Memoirs of the late Captain Hugh Crow of Liverpool (London, 1830), the captain recalled eating a dish called chowder which consisted of "a mixture of fresh fish, salt pork, pounded biscuit and onions; and which, when well-seasoned and stewed, we found to be an excellent palatable dish".

Though now a respected dish across the world in many cultures, chowder began its life as a foodstuff to keep the English and French sailors from going hungry as they crossed the Atlantic to the then new worlds of Canada and America. It seemed in the absence of flour, the soup was thickened with sea biscuits, or sailors crackers.

From its inauspicious origins for sailors and seamen to its central place in the culinary psychology of many New Englanders, chowder now occupies a strange place in our own food culture. I remember making my first chowder while working in Fat Freddy’s Pizzeria in Galway in the late 1990s. Back then not many were talking of provenance; even less were talking about food history. This is not to say no one was. The vanguard was working quietly away.

It was a cod chowder that caught my eye recently, while perusing through Maura Laverty's Full and Plenty (1960). Many think that chowder needs a variety of fish and shellfish, but this is not the case. For example, "Fulton Market style chowder" (1904) is made from clams, tomatoes, allspice, cloves, red pepper and Worcester sauce. There are many more variations from Bermuda to Ballinasloe.

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How to cook a simple cod chowder

Fry one diced onion in 50g of butter with a few sprigs of thyme and rosemary.

When tender, add two diced carrots, potatoes, and celery stalks. Mix in 50g of flour and then add in 500ml of milk and fish stock. Simmer until the potatoes are soft and then add in 500g of diced cod.

After a few minutes season the soup with salt, pepper and a handful of chopped chives.

If you like, two diced streaky rashers can be added to give the chowder more punch and a little more seafaring authenticity.