Monday, August 26, 2013

Grandma's Fish Chowder

Grandma Caspersen, during The War

Grandma (left), readying for take off
Ingrid Caspersen, my paternal grandmother, was the daughter of Trygve and Ingeborg Caspersen, new immigrants from Norway. And "Grandma," as I knew her, was an amazing person. She was one of the first women to enlist during WWII -- because she wasn't going to leave the fighting to the boys. When asked, she'd tell you that being at sea with U-Boats all around was one of the most frightening experiences, for her, of the war -- because you just had to wait, helplessly. She could tell some stories about living through the great depression, too, times when everything was scarce, and even basic staples like milk and butter were out of reach. She had plenty of fun stories, too, like Grandpa Trygve's memorable gripe about American food: "Papa no want jam! Papa want feesh!" My dad remembered with fondness the stories she told about the old gods of the old country, about Valhalla and the gods who loved to fight and drink mead.

She was the young woman who went to war, the mother who, recently widowed, went to work at
Grandma, doing her part, center
almost 50 to support her family. She was a loving mother and a loving grandmother.

And, on top of all this, she was a great cook (and a fantastic wood carver, too). It was always a good day when someone decided to make "Grandma's banana bread", or "Grandma's pumpkin bread". It was Sundays when my dad would make "Grandma's fish chowder," though, that we all looked forward to. It's similar to some other Norwegian fish chowders that I've found recipes for (for instance), but not identical. Since my mom discovered the recipe card (written out by my Grandma :) ), below, I decided to make it today.

There are a few updates I made to the recipe. First, I cut it in half, based on the number of folks I'm feeding. I also do not eat pork, so I do not include it. :)


2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 cup hot water
1 medium-large onion, diced
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
1 1/2 stalks celery, diced
1 medium bay leaf
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
1 lb cod or haddock fillets, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 cups milk, hot
chopped parsley

Saute onions in 1 tablespoon butter in heavy pan. Add water, potatoes, celery, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Cover and cook for ten minutes. Add fish, simmer an additional ten minutes, or until fish flakes with a fork.
Turn off heat, add the hot milk and stir thoroughly. Check seasoning, add additional salt or pepper if needed.  Serve with bits of butter and a sprinkle of parsley. 4 servings.

One of the beauties of this recipe is how simple it is to make. The most labor intensive part is dicing; and you don't want to skimp to save time here, because it will impact your cooking time (and overall texture) later. The good news is that you can prep these in advance, if you like, (store in an air tight container, refrigerate after you're finished) which reduces your cook time to less than half an hour. 

When I make this, I start with dicing the vegetables.

The onions should be between 1/8" - 1/4" inch long (ring thickness):

Celery should be cut lengthwise and cut into pieces no thicker than 1/8". These I try to keep more uniform, whereas I cut the potatoes into slices between 1/8" - 1/4 ", and then 1/4 " pieces. The variety provides a moderately chunky texture, while still cooking thoroughly.

You do not have to prep the fish yet because you will have ample time while the chowder cooks. When your vegetables are diced, saute the onions until soft and slightly golden. If you plan to heat your  milk on the stovetop, start now on a low temperature.

When finished, add the celery, potatoes, bay leaf, seasoning and water. Mix thoroughly and cover.:

Let this simmer at a medium heat for ten minutes. Meanwhile, cube the fish. I used cod below, but both are very good.

Try to keep the pieces uniform. It's OK to have slightly bigger pieces where the fish is thinner, but your cubes should be no bigger than 1" x 1" x 1".

When the vegetable mix is finished, add the fish.

If you dump it in like I did :), you will want to stir thoroughly -- you want the fish covered in the liquid to ensure thorough cooking. Cover and cook for an additional 10 minutes. (If you are microwaving your milk, make sure you heat it to coincide with your timer expiring). Before shutting off the heat, check that the fish is flaky. If it is not, keep cooking until your fish flakes. It will have a thick, almost stewy feel at this point.

Shut off the heat add the hot milk. Mix thoroughly. The chowder will have diluted sufficiently, retaining some of the chunkiness but thinning to a good, chowder-y consistency:

Test that your seasoning is right, adding more salt or pepper if needed. Serve hot. Scoop into bowls and top with flecks of butter and sprinkles of parsley.

And enjoy: fish chowder, the way Grandma used to make it... "feesh", one of the ways "Papa" Trygve would have eaten it. :)

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