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Tuesday, December 29, 2020

A Big Bowl of Metaphor Soup: Ina Garten's Baked Fish Chowder

Hoo boy. It has been a year, and I’ve posted no recipes. Aside from my poem-a-day posts throughout April (and a 3-ingredient scone post I drafted but never posted), I didn’t blog at all this year. 

So why am I here now, just a few days before year end? 


Well, I received a new cookbook for Christmas—Modern Comfort Food by Ina Garten—and while flipping through a few nights ago, I saw a recipe for Baked Fish Chowder. I’ve never been a particular fan of fish soups—I can occasionally enjoy a well-seasoned Crab and Corn Chowder, and have oohed and ahhed over some very decadent Lobster Bisques in my day—but, in general, you won’t find me excited for fish soup. However, when I saw this one, something about it seemed so delicious and wonderful and screamed out, “Make me!” In fact, the thought of that soup took root in my head for a few days, and so I decided, yes, this would be my maiden recipe of this book.


There’s something about cookbooks that takes me out of my world for a spell. When I read good cookbooks, I see my life differently than it actually is. I imagine myself eating, as a meal, a baked raclette (which is basically baked potatoes and sausages with cheese) served alongside a “big green salad and a crusty baguette” even though that’s not what meals at my house look like. Yet, in the moments of scanning recipes and brilliant food photography (in this case by the perfectly-named Quentin Bacon(!)), I see myself eating that way, imagine my kids delighted by their open-faced Spanish-imported tuna melts or fancy chutney-studded grilled cheeses or even, yes, the potato thing. 


That’s how I found myself salivating over the fish chowder. I decided it would be a gift to myself to try to slow down and mindfully prepare this meal (as opposed to checking it off a to-do list as mealtime has started to feel these days), and be thankful for our good fortune at having food to eat and a way to pay for it and a home in which to prepare it, especially as so many others are denied what should be human fundamentals. 


Two days ago, I set about acquiring the necessary ingredients. The list required a separate trip to the market (something I avoid at all costs these days) for items like fish stock (which I’ve never purchased in my life), saffron threads, yellow potatoes, fresh cod, dry white wine (I mean, of course I have wine here, but I wasn’t using one of my expensive wines in my soup, so I bought an $11 bottle of Sauvignon Blanc rated a 90 by Wine Enthusiast, and that’s what I used), and a little travel-sized bottle of Sambuca because it turns out I didn’t have anise liqueur among my barstuffs. I already had celery, onions, fresh thyme, bacon, butter, heavy cream, and half & half. An inexpensive throw-together recipe this was not. 


Yesterday, it was Chef Time. I put on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and got to it.


Full disclosure: I’m not what one would call a “quick” cook. In fact, I’m pretty slow at just about every aspect. Set-up, prep, clean-up, all of it. Though not among my favorite personal characteristics, I’ve come to accept it. I know that when I cook, it’s going to be a process. For recipes I’m trying for the first time so I don’t know where to implement shortcuts, a longer process. And for recipes I’m photographing as I make them? Even longer. 


Thus, I knew going in that this particular chowder was going to take me a long time to make. 


Oftentimes, cookbooks include time estimates at the top of the recipe to give you a semblance of how long the recipe takes to prepare. I find these guidelines frequently underestimate the total time, even accounting for my aforementioned pace, so I automatically tack on an extra 15-30 minutes depending on the number of steps and/or ingredients, but I still appreciate an author including them so I don’t end up eating dinner at 10pm. This book, however, does not include any time estimates. Which means that, even though it’s something you should always be doing anyway, it’s even MORE important in this instance to read through the entire recipe before you start


Between my own tortoise pace and a recipe that--after much slicing, dicing, washing, and peeling—still required 10+ minutes to crisp up some bacon; then around 15 minutes to sauté onions, celery, and thyme; then 30-40 to bake with potatoes and stock; then another 20-30 to bake with the cod; then 5 more to rest after stirring in some final touches before serving, I’d prepared myself for a marathon cooking sesh. That said, I still wasn’t quite prepared for how long it took me. 


I tied on my apron at 4:40pm and began my veggie prep (I’d already prepped my cod the night before when I got it home from the market) and I sat down and tasted my first official spoonful at 7:59pm. I could have shaved a good 20 minutes off my time had I worked smarter, but I basically cut and measured everything so I had mise en place going, rather than using the cook times to prep as I went along. 


Here’s how I suggest you tackle the project. 


Start by crisping up a half pound of bacon in a large oven-safe Dutch oven. 

While that cooks, prep your veggies: you need 6 cups of thinly sliced onions, 3 cups of diced celery, 1 Tablespoon of fresh thyme. 


When the bacon is crispy, remove it with a slotted spoon and add the veggies to the bacon grease. 


Sauté that situation for 10-12 minutes, until it gets soft and starts to become lightly browned. During that 10-12 minutes, peel and slice a pound of golden potatoes. Pro-tip: DO NOT get baby ones. Ina called for 2” diameter goldens but my market was all out, so I subbed in the babies. It was a PITA to peel that many tiny potatoes, and I shaved off a fingernail in the process. 

When the veggies are lightly browned, add ¾ cup of good white wine (scrape the brown bits off the bottom of the pan) 1 ½ teaspoon kosher salt (I used Morton’s which, apparently, is saltier than Diamond, which Ina uses and calls for 2 teaspoons), and 1 teaspoon pepper, and let that simmer for another 2 minutes. 


Remove half the onion mixture from the pot and then layer on half the potatoes and 2 Tablespoons of diced butter. 

Add the onions you removed back into the pot, evenly distributed over the potatoes, and repeat the process with the rest of the potatoes and another 2 Tablespoons of diced butter. 


Add the 2 15oz cans of Bar Harbor seafood stock (which, I’m seeing only now, I was supposed to have heated to a simmer prior to use, but which I didn’t—oh well!) and saffron threads (which I hydrated by stirring into a Tablespoon of hot water just before use) into the pot. 

Cover and bake for 30-40 minutes. I set my timer for 35 minutes and headed downstairs to watch the season 2 finale of Virgin River. When the timer rang, the potatoes were nearly cooked through, which was the goal, so 35 minutes was perfect for me.


Pour ½ cup EACH half & half and heavy cream and stir gently.

Then add in 2 pounds of fresh cod cut into 1”x3” chunks and sprinkled with kosher salt and pepper (I used just under a Tablespoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of pepper) and press gently into the cooking liquids. 


Cover again and bake another 20-30 minutes. Mine took about 30 for the fish to flake easily with a fork. 


Add 2 Tablespoons of anise liqueur (I used Sambuca, but Ina suggested Pernod) and the reserved bacon (I only added half the bacon and topped individual bowls with more because stirring crispy bacon into liquid makes it suddenly soggy bacon once more) and let it sit 5 minutes before serving. Note: you might be tempted to skip this liqueur. After all, the recipe doesn’t call for that much and you probably don’t have it on hand and it can’t possibly make a difference, right? Wrong. It adds a subtle depth of flavor that makes the dish feel complete. You don’t get strong anise flavor, but you do get a little less fishiness, and a roundness that flavors the broth in a pleasant manner. For $1.49, you can buy a tiny hotel-room sized bottle of Sambuca and it is worth it. 

Now, after all this work, how was it?, you’re doubtless wondering. 

I thought about this earlier today, as I drank my coffee, and chuckled to myself as I realized my experience of the chowder was sort of the perfect metaphorical reflection of 2020. 


See, I’d gone in with certain expectations, a hope for it to taste as delicious as it looked, for it to be satisfying and, frankly, wonderful. I knew I’d have to do my part to help achieve that outcome—I’d need to use the right ingredients, follow the recipe guidelines, know when to make executive decisions if the directions outlined something that I experienced differently, etc. I thought I was ready for all the work and expense involved with making it—and I did do my best to stay enthusiastic as I went—but sometimes along the way I wished I hadn’t taken it on, wished I’d just ordered pizza instead. 


It was a whole lot of buildup, but when I tasted it, my first thought was that it was fishy. Too fishy, not good. Oh no! Catastrophe! All this time and effort and money completely wasted! But then—right behind that initial taste, other things came through: well-seasoned onions and creamy, well-cooked potatoes, and a really rich broth with hints of fruit from the wine and just the right amount of spice from the black pepper and some floral notes from the saffron and smokiness from the bacon and whatever that roundness of flavor is that came from the anise. I didn’t love it overall, but I loved things within it. I ate everything in my bowl because this was my dinner.  


My family had their own mixed feelings—my younger daughter liked it. My older daughter said she just doesn’t like seafood (which isn’t entirely true, but she blows hot and cold about things she likes in general, so this day was one when she doesn’t like fish). My husband looked as though he was doing his best to tolerate it, but he had the misfortune of getting quite a few hidden bones in his cod (nobody else did) so that made for a tense eating experience. At the end, we had half a pot left on the stove—nobody went back for seconds—and I felt a little sad because I’m not prepared to throw it away but I also have very little desire to eat another bowl of it in the future. 


All in all, it wasn’t what I’d been hoping it would be, didn’t feel like it was worth the struggle, and I was glad when my bowl was empty.


And yet…I did go back today and have another taste. It’s still not my favorite thing. For sure, it’s not. But there are some delicious aspects of it. It’s most certainly not all bad. There’s parts of it I loved, techniques and flavors I would take with me in the future and try to replicate or improve. There were parts of the soup that were worth the added time, expense, and effort, and that were part of my experience which, fine, maybe wasn’t what I’d hoped for, but that I’m not worse off having tasted. Oddly, this baked fish chowder ended up being the perfect recipe for the end of my year, even if not for the reason I thought.


Even better is that I look forward to trying other recipes, even as I know some will be a complete triumph while others will be a disappointment. But guess what? That’s the joy of cooking, and what a gift it is to be able to do.