In search of the perfect cod chowder

By Capt. Michael Martel
For Points East

The author and his creation. By starting with a whole fish, heÕs able to make a broth from the rack. Photo courtesy Capt. Mike Martel

I was a man on a mission. I wanted a fish. A whole fish. A cold, firm-fleshed winter codfish. I was obsessed with the goal of making a sturdy fish chowder, and to make a proper one, you need to begin with a whole fish, not just a few fillets from the grocery store.

This particular midwinter day, roughly 20 years ago, was bitterly cold, and it was late in the afternoon. As my wife Denise and I drove down the long, winding road to Sakonnet Point in Little Compton, R.I., in our old and rattling car, the heater blasted as it struggled to keep the car warm. We didn’t have the money for a newer vehicle. But we could afford to buy a codfish.

At the end of the road, in the small gravel lot at the beginning of the breakwater, we parked and looked west across the Sakonnet River toward the setting sun and bleak Sachuest Point. The wind buffeted and shook the car. This was the dock where I knew the fishing boats came in at the end of the day to offload their catch. There was a small stone fisherman’s shack on the pier, and thanks to a stovepipe emitting a thin line of wood smoke, I knew there was life inside. The windows were dark. But I was waiting for a boat.

Wind-driven waves crashed against the harbor breakwater, translucent green and cold, their curling white frothy caps tinged yellow-orange with the colors of the setting sun. As I scanned the horizon, an old wooden Eastern-rig fishing boat suddenly appeared. Eventually, when the boat drew close enough, it was apparent that its rigging was sheathed in ice; a glistening coating that sparkled like a million prisms in the last sunbeams of the dying day. I went over to the dock and spoke to a man as he walked up. He pointed toward the shack, and I followed him.

Inside it was toasty warm, stuffy and dark. A few of his crew were already standing around a sizzling wood stove. They were smoking and passing around a flask of whisky, and the air was hazy with tobacco and wood smoke. The man I had spoken to took my crumpled bill, stuffed it into his pocket, and brought me back outside and around the back to a big cart. He handed me a whole gray codfish, a decent-sized one, that minutes earlier had been on his boat.

The codfish was ice cold as I carried it back to my car and laid it on newspapers. I had my treasure, I thought.

As we drove home, I thought about the potatoes, onions, the cube of salt pork, the milk, the black ground pepper, and every step of the process that I would use to make my chowder. Once done, there was no need for anything else; the soup alone constituted a meal. With a good chowder, the only difference between a snack and a meal is the size of your bowl.

Just thinking about it made me hungry, and I could feel my stomach begin to grumble as we drove over the bridges in the gathering dusk, the last blue halo of the day fading in the west.

Capt. Mike Martel, sailing out of Bristol, R.I., holds a 100-ton Master’s license and is a lifelong boating and marine-industry enthusiast. He enjoys delivering boats to destinations along the U.S. East Coast and in the Caribbean, and writing about his experiences on the water and other marine topics.

Recipe: Codfish or haddock chowder

Begin with a whole fish that has been headed, gutted, scaled and the gills removed. Haddock or cod (they are the same family) is your choice. Pollock and hake are stronger flavored and also suitable, but I prefer cod. When they’re in season blackfish – tautog – also makes a fine chowder.

The first step is to filet the fish and set the filets aside. Put the fish bones in a pot and just cover with water; keep in mind that the end goal is about three cups of broth. Add a cup of coarsely chopped celery, carrot and onion. Now poach for about a half hour, covered, on low heat. When done, strain the broth and discard the vegetables. Some old timers leave the head on the backbone and poach that, too, preferring to remove the cod cheeks afterward and add to the chowder, but always remove the gills or they will give the stock a “soapy” quality.

Put the fillets into the stock and simmer for 20 minutes. Carefully remove the fish and set aside to cool.

Cut your potatoes into half-inch cubes, and leave the skins on if you like. In my humble opinion the best potatoes in the world are grown here in Rhode Island on Aquidneck Island. Short of that, use some sort of potato meant to be boiled, versus baked or fried.

Put the diced potatoes into the stock and boil them until nearly done. In another pot of similar size, render about a cup of salt pork. You’ll want to keep your salt pork refrigerated first so that it remains firm when you cut it. Cut off the rind and discard. Then, using a sharp knife, cut the block of salt pork into little “French fries” no more than ¼” across and between 1” and 2” long. Work quickly. Fry them until golden brown in the second pot and remove from the fat and set aside.

Into the pot with the hot fat add finely chopped (or minced) onion. Cook the onion until translucent and then add the stock and cooked potatoes, black pepper – about a teaspoonful, or more, if you like black pepper – a tablespoon of butter, and a half-teaspoon of crushed fresh garlic. Simmer for 20 minutes.

Now break up the fish filets with your fingers and add to the pot. Add a quart of half-and-half, or more if needed, to the pot, and turn up the flame while stirring gently. Do not bring to a boil. Now salt it to taste with sea salt. When it’s right, turn off the heat and cover. Don’t eat it. Put the pot into the refrigerator (move the beer to someplace else) and leave overnight. Cover the cooked salt pork pieces in a little bowl and refrigerate them, too.

The next day, when you’re hungry, put the pot of chowder back on the stove and heat to simmering. Taste test: Does it need more salt? Does it seem thin? If not thick enough, whisk two tablespoons of flour into a half-cup of cold milk; add to the pot and bring to a high simmer, stirring gently. Alternately, thicken it with a light roux made with butter and flour.

Sometimes I like to add a few drops of Outerbridge’s Royal Full Hot Rum Sherry Peppers sauce to each bowl served. When serving, garnish with a little chopped fresh Italian parsley and a few of the brown cracklings of salt pork set aside the day before. They can be warmed first in the toaster oven then put on top of the chowder. You can serve Jacob’s Cream Crackers with the chowder since you can’t get Crown Pilot crackers anymore. Never mind those little “oyster” crackers – throw them out into the yard for the birds and then watch the birds through the window while you enjoy your cod chowder. Bon appetit!

– Capt. Mike Martel