Publishing a new recipe for chowder seems like asking for trouble, since everyone has a different idea about what makes a true one.
But on a recent drizzly, almost-cool day, I found myself fantasizing about a soup chock-full of potatoes and some sort of fish. It would be more Portuguese or Spanish than New England, inspired by some of the salt cod and potato stews I have encountered along the Iberian Peninsula. It probably wouldn’t really qualify as a chowder anyway, and wouldn’t appeal to outspoken purists. I didn’t plan to use milk or butter, nor would there be oyster crackers in the picture.
No, this soup would have chorizo, onions, leeks and potatoes. As for fish, I planned to use something smoked.
What resulted was warming, homey and very tasty. The only ingredient I had to leave the house for was a chunk of smoked sablefish. Really, almost any kind of smoked fish could be used: whitefish, sturgeon, haddock, even eel or smoked mussels.
I started out by sweating onions in olive oil, always a good beginning, with a bay leaf for good measure. Then came the diced chorizo, its familiar aroma wafting through the kitchen. I could have added potatoes and water and called it dinner right then.
I’m glad to have persevered, though, because the smoked sable gave the soup unbelievable instant umami. Now, umami is not a word I would normally choose — it’s overused, sometimes merely to describe big flavor. For me to invoke it, a food has to be shockingly, deeply flavorful, and this was. Just a few minutes of simmering imbued the broth with a vaguely dashilike flavor and aroma.
But the other element I wanted was roasted pepper. Happily, in the cupboard was a jar of small piquillo peppers from Spain, so that wish was easily granted. It’s a pantry staple I heartily recommend. Into the soup went the sweet red strips.
Just before serving, I gave it a fistful of chopped cilantro and a good squeeze of lime. It was not chowder at all, but awfully good.
Smoked Fish and Potato Soup with Chorizo
Time: 1 hour
Yield: 6 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced (about 1 1/2 cups)
Salt and pepper
6 ounces chorizo, diced
1 pound yellow-fleshed potatoes, peeled and cut in 1-inch cubes
1 bay leaf
6 cups chicken broth or water
2 medium leeks, white and tender green parts, diced (about 2 cups)
1 pound smoked sablefish or smoked mackerel, in 1-inch chunks
8 ounces piquillo peppers from a jar, cut in 1/2-inch strips
1 cup roughly chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems
Lime wedges, for serving
1. Put olive oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium-high heat. Add onions, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until softened and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes.
2. Add chorizo and potatoes and stir to coat, then cook for 5 minutes, stirring. Add bay leaf and broth and bring to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer. When potatoes are nearly tender, about 10 minutes, add leeks and cook for 5 minutes more. Taste broth and add salt as necessary.
3. Add smoked sable and piquillo peppers and simmer for 10 minutes, then turn off heat to let flavors mingle.
4. Reheat soup to serve, adding chopped cilantro at the last minute. Serve with lime wedges for squeezing into bowls at the table.
Since the soup is made from smoked fish, it will keep for several days, refrigerated, and actually improves in flavor upon reheating.
And to drink
This savory, smoky Iberian chowder calls out for a savory Iberian specialty: sherry. I may be one of sherry’s more ardent proponents, and it may not be for everybody. But see for yourself whether the rich, generous favors of the soup don’t go with a saline fino or, even better, a fuller, more complex amontillado. If you want to go even deeper into fortified experimentation, how about a dry sercial Madeira? The maritime nature of the wine will amplify and underscore the flavors of the soup. If you must have still wine, try an open-knit red, like a Crozes-Hermitage or a Côtes du Rhône. Or diverge into beer. A dry stout would be delicious.
— Eric Asimov