When you grow up in Seattle, the granddaughter of fishmongers, there are always fish bones around. We never got fancy filets, it was always whole fish that got butchered at home, live crabs we cleaned ourselves and none of this peeled-and-deveined shrimp you see in markets now. Fish was a bit of work, but worth every minute of it. Not only did we eat like kings on the freshest local stuff that was in season, but we ended up with bones and shells that always got put to good use: Hello, chowder!
Fish bones or shrimp shells simmered briefly in white wine, water and some aromatics make a quick fish stock with tons of flavor. Don’t even think of buying it already made—that stuff tastes like dishwater compared to the homemade version. If you’re not filleting your own fish, ask your fishmonger for some bones; mine often gives them to me free.
For the fish stock:
2 lbs fish bones
2 cups white wine
4 cups water
1 onion, chopped
1 stalk celery chopped
1 bouquet garni (parsley, bay, thyme, peppercorns)
For the chowder:
½ cup diced onion or leeks
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon thyme, minced
Old Bay Seasoning
6 cups fish stock
2 cups of whole milk
2 cups Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced
2 cups raw clams, shucked
Drop the bones in a stockpot with about 2 cups dry white wine and 4 cups of water. For aromatics, I like a rough-chopped onion or shallot, some celery and a bouquet garni (parsley, bay, thyme, peppercorns). Bring the mixture to a simmer and let it cook (without boiling) for about 20 minutes. Strain the stock well and discard all the solids. Once cool, you can refrigerate it for a couple days or freeze it up to 1 month.
OK, so now that you’ve got amazing stock, turning it into chowder is a piece of cake. I’m a white-chowder lover, but just creamy enough to be lightly thickened, not the coat-your-mouth-with-cream kind of chowder.
Saute about ½ cup diced onion or leeks in a little butter or oil until translucent. Add a teaspoon of minced fresh thyme, a pinch of salt and pepper and, if you like it, a sprinkle of Old Bay Seasoning. Add about 6 cups of fish stock and 2 cups of whole milk or half and half, bring to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer. Add 2 cups of peeled, diced Yukon Gold potatoes and cook, partially covered, until the potatoes are just tender. Taste the soup and season with salt and pepper. This is your chowder base and from here you have lots of room to play.
For clam chowder you can add about 2 cups of shucked raw clams (or good-quality canned clams) and simmer until they are just tender (watch carefully so they don’t overcook). For salmon chowder, cut 1 pound salmon filet, skinned, into 1-inch pieces and place them in the chowder until just tender, 3–4 minutes. (For even more salmon flavor, finish the soup with ½ cup diced smoked salmon.) Any other firm white fish works here too, as do mussels, shrimp or oysters. The seafood will cook quickly in the warm broth so this isn’t a soup you want to walk away from.
Best eaten right away, you should ladle it into warm soup bowls, top with minced fresh herbs of your choice (dill is a natural) and, if you really want to go classic, a big handful of oyster crackers.
Waste not, want not—put them bones to good use and make some chowder!