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Recipes: How to cook JFK’s favorite chowder

Plus, easy takes on New England and Rhode Island clam chowders.

If you know my books, you know my motto is fresh flavors, nicely tuned, with minimal fuss. Yet I’m surprised by the number of people who make excuses for not cooking fish — it will smell up the kitchen (not necessarily true), it sticks to the grill (doesn’t have to), it’s not interesting (a Catholic hangover from fish-stick Fridays) — but really I think many people don’t do it because they are intimidated. Let’s get over it. Fish and shellfish are superfoods, good for your brain and heart. They are remarkably easy to roast in the winter, pan-fry in the fall, stir-fry in the spring, and grill year-round. And for those who haven’t cooked much with fish, one-pot chowders are a great introduction. Rustic and flexible, they shine with flavor. They are also profoundly simple, liberating the cook for other pleasures.

JFK’S NEW ENGLAND FISH CHOWDER

Serves 6

Aug. 10, 1960 — John F. Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline, and their daughter, Caroline, outside the family’s Hyannis Port home in 1960.  (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
AFP/Getty Images
John F. Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline, and their daughter, Caroline, outside the family’s Hyannis Port home in 1960.

Thank goodness for secretaries. When John F. Kennedy was president, a disabled girl wrote to him asking what he liked to eat. “Please reply to her,” Kennedy’s secretary wrote in a memo to the president. “She will be extremely happy. Do not mention anything in the letter about her handicap please!” We have this chowder recipe as a result, thanks to the JFK Library archives.

2 pounds haddock

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2 ounces salt pork, diced

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2 onions, sliced

4 large potatoes, diced

1 cup celery, chopped

1 bay leaf, crumbled

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1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 quart milk

2 tablespoons butter

Put the haddock in a soup pot with 2 cups water and simmer for 15 minutes. Drain, reserving the broth. Remove any bones from the fish and set fish aside.

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Saute the salt pork in the soup pot until crisp. With a slotted spoon, remove the pork and set aside. Saute the onions in the pork fat until golden brown. Add the fish, potatoes, celery, bay leaf, salt, and pepper to taste.

Pour in the reserved fish broth plus enough boiling water to make 3 cups liquid. Simmer for 30 minutes. Add the milk and butter and simmer for 5 minutes. Serve the chowder sprinkled with the diced pork.

Keller + Keller Photography
New England clam chowder.

NEW ENGLAND CLAM CHOWDER

Serves 8

New England chowders are traditionally made with quahogs — large hard-shell clams that are native to the eastern shores of North America and particularly plentiful near Cape Cod and the Islands. I use littlenecks, which are smaller hard-shell clams, in this dish.

48 hard-shell (littleneck) clams, scrubbed

4–5 slices bacon, chopped

6 tablespoons butter, plus more for serving (optional)

2 celery stalks, chopped

1 medium yellow onion, diced

½ teaspoon dried thyme or 1 teaspoon fresh

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

6 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 large potatoes, diced

2 cups heavy cream

2 cups milk

Freshly ground black pepper

Bring 6 cups water to a boil in a soup pot and add the clams. Return to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and steam until the clams open, about 7 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the clams to a bowl. Discard any clams that did not open. Strain the clam broth through a paper towel-lined colander, reserving 4 cups of the broth. Shell the clams and mince the meat.

In the soup pot, fry the bacon until crispy, about 8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate and set aside; discard the fat in the pot. Melt the 6 tablespoons butter in the soup pot. Add the celery, onion, thyme, and cayenne pepper and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the flour and cook 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the reserved broth from the cooked clams and stir until thickened slightly, about 5 minutes. Add the potatoes and cream, reduce the heat to low, and cook until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.

Add the milk, bring the chowder to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium and add the reserved clams and bacon. Simmer until the clams are heated through, about 5 minutes. Serve in bowls topped with pats of butter if you wish and a generous grinding of black pepper.

Keller + Keller Photography
Rhode Island clam chowder.

RHODE ISLAND CLAM CHOWDER

Serves 4–6

Rhode Islanders prefer a clear-broth chowder to the traditional “white” chowder, as they deign to call chowders across the state line. If you’ve never tried a clear-broth chowder, rush thee to the kitchen: It’s awesome. From Galilee to Warwick, clam chowder is dished up in schools, at diners, in pubs. Indeed, I learned the secret from a public school line cook who moonlights at an oyster bar in Jamestown. The flavors are strong, and I think that a clam broth is better than chicken soup for a cold. I like it with a lot of black pepper and a few dashes of Tabasco sauce.

20 littleneck clams, scrubbed

4 slices bacon, chopped

2 tablespoons butter

1 large yellow onion, diced

2 celery stalks, diced

1 teaspoon dried thyme or 2 teaspoons fresh

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon garlic powder

¼ teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 pound yellow potatoes, diced

Bring 6 cups water to a boil in a soup pot and add the clams. Return to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and steam until the clams open, about 7 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the clams to a bowl. Discard any clams that did not open. Strain the clam broth through a paper towel-lined colander, reserving 4 cups of the broth. Shell the clams and dice the meat. Set aside.

Fry the bacon in the soup pot over medium heat until crisp, about 8 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove the bacon and set aside, leaving 2 tablespoons fat in the pot. Add the butter, onion, celery, thyme, pepper, garlic powder, and salt and cook until the onion is translucent, about 7 minutes.

Add the flour, stir, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the reserved broth, stir, and then add the potatoes and the reserved bacon and cook until the potatoes are tender. Add the reserved clams, simmer until they are heated through, about 5 minutes, and serve at once.

Jennifer Trainer Thompson, a three-time James Beard Award nominee and director of special events at Mass MoCA, is the author of 18 books, including “Fresh Fish,” to be released on March 22. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

Excerpted from “Fresh Fish: A Fearless Guide to Grilling, Shucking, Searing, Poaching and Roasting Seafood.” Copyright © by Jennifer Trainer Thompson. Photograph copyright © Keller + Keller Photography. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.