Don’t know if it’s the holiday season or what, but I woke this morning thinking about smoked fish — in particular, smoked whitefish salad. Growing up in New York, there was always an array of really good bagels (not those omnipresent oversized, doughy, imposter bagels; you know what I’m talking about) along with bialys, gravlax, and smoked whitefish salad. Maybe I was just a weird kid, but have always loved smoked fish, and am still as big a fan as ever. Although, somewhere along the way, my idea for smoked whitefish salad morphed into a smoked bluefish chowder. Just can’t resist a hearty bowl of chowder.
This chowder totally hits the spot — smoky, hearty, comforting. In addition to a bit of cream, mashing some of the potatoes and incorporating them back into the chowder gives it a pleasantly thick and creamy texture. The addition of sherry at the end adds nutty and sweet notes, but the star of the bowl is the house-smoked bluefish. That being said, there will be smoked bluefish salad in the future, maybe with homemade bialys as well.
Bluefish is local, well, at least in my neck of the woods; these two guys were previously swimming somewhere off the East Coast. Inexpensive (around $5/pound) and sustainable (bluefish has a sustainability index score of 4 [out of a maximum of 4]), bluefish had been overfished in the past, they are now abundant once again.
Stuffed with fresh rosemary and thyme, and seasoned with pink peppercorns, these guys are looking very festive for the holidays…
These bluefish were hot smoked using cherrywood and hickory chips. Cherrywood is more subtle, whereas hickory imparts stronger, smoky notes. Bluefish are ideal for smoking in that they are meaty and oily. Fillets also work well for smoking, but I prefer the whole fish (they are usually less expensive since you are not paying your fishmonger for his/her services, and they tend to remain considerably more moist when smoked on the bone). You can smoke the fish in advance, flake it, and have the meat ready to toss into the chowder.
Or, if you are not up to smoking your own fish, you could substitute with commercially smoked whitefish (or bluefish, if available). Whole Foods tends to stock smoked fish. If you happen to have an Eastern European grocery store in your area, even better (this one in Chicago was a favorite of mine; this one in Rockville, MD, is worth the drive). And, if you ever find yourself in Ann Arbor, MI, be sure to visit this spot, where they hot and cold smoke a wide array of fish and meat in house. Of course, you can’t visit Ann Arbor without making a stop at this legendary spot. One disclaimer: commercially smoked fish tends to be quite salty; adjust the salt in the chowder accordingly.
Smoked Bluefish Chowder
2 (1-pound) whole bluefish, scaled and cleaned
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 leek (white and pale green parts), minced
1 celery stalk, minced
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
4 cups fish/chicken/vegetable stock
1 1/4 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into ~ 1/3-inch cubes
4 sprigs fresh thyme
Sea salt and black pepper
Pinch of cayenne
1 cup frozen corn
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons dry Sherry
Chopped chives for garnish
To smoke the fish I used my stovetop smoker with 1 tablespoon hickory and 1 tablespoon cherrywood. Each fish was smoked for 22 minutes, cooled, deboned, and flaked into large chunks. My smoker accommodates one fish at a time; accordingly, I used a new batch of hickory and cherrywood to smoke the second bluefish.
Melt the butter in a soup pot. Add the leek and celery and cook over medium-low heat until soft and translucent, about 13-15 minutes. Stir in the dry mustard, stock, potatoes, and thyme sprigs, season with salt (~2 teaspoons) and pepper, and a pinch of cayenne, bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 10-12 minutes.
With a slotted spoon, remove half of the potatoes. Mash with a fork or potato masher. Return the mashed potatoes to the soup. Stir in the corn and sherry and cook another minute or two until the corn is warmed through. Remove from the heat and mix in the fish and cream. Serve immediately, garnished with chopped chives.