- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

Chowder is the most comforting of foods — a dish steeped in tradition and ripe for creativity. At its simplest, it can be made quickly from bacon, onions, milk, potatoes and a chunk of salmon, cod or halibut picked up from the store on the way home from work. Or, for a special occasion, it can be authentically created with a homemade fish stock and live lobsters, fresh steamed clams or mussels.

But chowder isn’t always made from fish. In fact, there are some delicious vegetable chowders. Among them is a parsnip chowder that I make every winter.

Another of my favorite chowder recipes is one I grew up on. It’s a specialty of my first-generation Italian-American mother. She is an excellent cook, and people love her chowder. Super-thick, it contains diced potatoes but also barley, perhaps a throwback to the farro- or farina-thickened soups of her ancestors. Adding a box of frozen vegetables at the end was her way of making this a nutritionally complete meal.

For the following menu, I offer two chowder recipes. Mom’s red clam chowder with barley — made with a tomato base — is for when you have a little more time. The second recipe is a simplified version of New England-style fish-and-potato chowder, a traditional combination made with bacon, onions, potatoes, milk, cream and fish.

Serve the chowders with plain saltine crackers, or look for those small, round chowder crackers sold in many supermarkets or fish stores. After the chowder, serve a salad of mixed greens and orange slices.

During the winter months, I often add oranges to salads in place of tomatoes. Not only are they in season, but the orange taste is the perfect palate cleanser after a seafood meal. For dessert, serve something chocolate. The simplest choice is a plate of thin chocolate wafers. I especially like those that are coated in bittersweet chocolate icing.

Preparation: Make the chowder. While chowder is cooking, make the salad. At serving time, set out a plate of chocolate cookies.

New England-style fish-and-potato chowder

The preparation time is 15 minutes, and the cooking time is 25 minutes

2 slices bacon, diced

2 medium onions, halved lengthwise, sliced thin (about 2 cups)

2 cups unsalted chicken broth

4 medium potatoes, peeled, halved and thinly sliced (about 4 cups)

1 bay leaf

2 cups milk or half-and-half, plus more as needed

2 pounds boneless and skinless halibut, cod, sea bass, catfish or other firm white fish, cut into 2-inch chunks

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cook bacon in a large, broad saucepan over low heat, stirring, until most of the fat is rendered but bacon is not yet browned. Drain off most of the fat.

Add onion and cook, covered, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add broth, 2 cups water, potatoes and bay leaf, and heat to a boil.

Cover, and cook over low heat until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.

Add 2 cups milk or half-and-half and fish. Cover, and cook over low heat just until fish turns from translucent to opaque and chowder is very hot, about 5 minutes. Thin with additional milk or half-and-half, if desired. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Makes 6 servings.

Mom’s red clam chowder with barley

The preparation time is 20 minutes, and the cooking time is 1 hour.

3 pounds littleneck, Manila or cherrystone clams, rinsed and scrubbed clean

1 leafy celery top

2 garlic cloves, one bruised and one chopped

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon salt

2 slices bacon, diced

1 medium onion, chopped

1 rib celery, chopped

½ teaspoon dried oregano

⅓ cup pearl barley

1 28-ounce can diced Italian plum tomatoes, with juices

1 cup diced peeled potatoes, optional

1 10-ounce package frozen mixed vegetables

Freshly ground pepper

Place clams, 3 cups water, celery top, bruised garlic clove, bay leaf and salt in a large, broad saucepan. Cover, and heat to a boil.

Reduce heat to medium low, and simmer until clams have opened, about 4 to 8 minutes, depending on the size. Use a slotted spoon to remove opened clams to a side dish. Discard clams that refuse to open. Strain clam juice through a fine sieve or through a strainer lined with dampened cheesecloth. Reserve broth and clams separately.

Rinse pan and dry. Add bacon, onion, celery, chopped garlic and oregano to pan. Cook, stirring, over low heat, until bacon begins to render its fat.

Cover, and cook over low heat until vegetables are soft but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add reserved clam juice and barley to vegetables. Cover, and cook until barley is tender, about 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, pull clams from their shells and chop, or use a kitchen scissors to snip into ½-inch pieces.

When barley is tender, add tomatoes, potatoes (if desired) and frozen vegetables.

Cover, and cook over medium heat until potatoes are cooked, vegetables are tender and chowder is very hot, about 15 minutes. Add cut-up clams, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes 6 servings.

Green salad with oranges

1 12-ounce bag mixed salad greens

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Salt and pepper

2 oranges, peel and pith removed, cut into ½-inch-thick rounds

½ cup crumbled blue, feta or goat cheese, optional

Empty bag of salad greens into a large bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and vinegar, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, and toss. Mound onto 4 salad plates.

Tuck 3 orange slices into each mound of salad. Sprinkle salad with cheese, dividing evenly, if desired. Makes 4 servings.

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