Haddock Chowder Born from the Pandemic
For years now, local haddock have been plentiful. But while the stock is big and healthy, the individual fish are small. Eric Hess, a haddock fisherman from West Barnstable explains.
“They’re 16-18 inch haddock, which is at the smallest end of the range that are legal to catch. And part of there being a lot of fish in the ocean right now is that the fish are growing more slowly. So it’s kind of excruciating waiting for these haddock to grow. We’ve been seeing fish 15, 16, 17, 18 inches for several years now and they’re slowly making their way to the larger sizes,” he said.
The issue with size is that bigger fish get a higher price. Fishermen on the Cape are competing with high-end big fillets of imported haddock from Iceland.
“And these lower end fish, when the prepared food markets closed due to COVID, they started to really hit rock bottom in terms of pricing and it really sort of jeopardized whether we could keeping fishing or not,” Eric said.
At the same time, local food banks saw a huge rise in need. So the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance got organized—and coordinated local haddock fishermen and Massachusetts seafood and value added food processors to put together a haddock chowder for food banks. The goal of the chowder program is to get nutritious seafood to people who need it and to stabilize haddock prices and pay a fair price to fishermen. Bill Amaru, who fishes off of Chatham, spells out how it works.
“I was looking for you know an opportunity to market the haddock that we were catching a little bit more aggressively and they came up with the idea of using some of these haddock to create an alternative marketplace. So we directly sold to the company that was contracted by the fisheries trust to produce the chowder eliminating the middleman and we got a little bit more money,” Bill said.
Bill Amaru fishes for haddock inshore in the summer, whereas Eric Hess fishes further offshore mostly in the winter months. Altogether, about 15 to 20 local fishermen make up a fleet that’s bringing in snapper haddock for the chowder program year round. They’re selling over 20,000 pounds of snapper haddock to the program every month which translates to over 420 thousand bowls of chowder. Bill Amaru says chowder has always been a staple in his house—and like any good recipe, the key to success is in the details.
“I think it has a lot to do with how willing you are to play around with seasonings. I come from an Italian background my mom made a terrific chowder, so I’m pretty aggressive about my oregano and the different seasonings I put in there thyme.”
Most years Bill makes a huge batch of clam chowder to serve as part of Chatham’s First Night tradition. This year, that’s cancelled due to COVID like everything else, but he says he’ll still be making a batch of chowder to enjoy at home. Inspired by the program, though, he’s switching seafood for the first time from quahogs to snapper haddock.
“The quahogs and clams that we use the broth that you get from the clam is extremely important. The fish is going to be a little different I’m going to make stock. That adds a lot of flavor. Knowing to use a lot of butter. If I would do anything different with a commercial style chowder it would be just increase the butter. But I know there are limits,” Bill said.
The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermens’ Alliance says there are indeed limits—a stipulation of some of the grant money funding the program requires the haddock chowder to meet certain nutrition requirements. But that shouldn’t stop anyone who brings home a frozen container or makes a batch of their own from adding a little extra butter.
Here's a list of participating local food banks:
Family Pantry of Cape Cod - Harwich
Family Table Collaborative
Cape Veterans Outreach Center
Helping Our Women - Provincetown
Barnstable Council on Aging
St. David’s Episcopal Church, South Yarmouth
First Lutheran Church, West Barnstable
Alzheimer’s Family Support Center, Brewster
Community Table, Wellfleet
Truro Community Kitchen (will start in January)
And here's Captain Bill Amaru’s recipe for Haddock Chowder:
Bill said this size recipe would be good for a party of ten to twelve and the servings will be a good size bowl each. Also, keep in mind: opening large chowder quahogs is dangerous if you don’t know how. Fresh is best so find someone who can help and don’t use the canned ones. Our local fish markets have quahogs or know how to get them.
1 tbs oregano
1 tbs salt or to taste (not to be used if you have quahog juice) only for the haddock chowder
1 teas pepper, black
1 teas Italian spice
Good shake or two of thyme
2 or 3 bay leaves
Garlic to taste
3 sweet onions
4 large thin skinned potatoes, red are good
1/2 pound crispy bacon, or more if you’re so inclined
Pound or so of ham hocks or pigs feet
2 lbs of butter
1 quart light cream
10 lbs chowder quahogs ( In shell) or equivalent of meat and juice. If using haddock, 4 lbs of fillets will do. If you use the juice from the quahogs do not use the salt mentioned earlier. Opening large quahogs is tough even dangerous. Get your fish monger to open them for you and save the juice.
Dice into small pieces the potatoes and chop the onions finely. Fry the onions until tender in a little of the butter and boil the potatoes for about three minutes, don’t allow them to get mushy, they will finish cooking in the chowder. Drain and set aside with the onions.
Boil the ham hocks for at least an hour in about 2-3 quarts of water. This water will be the stock for the chowder. Strip the meat from the bones and add to the water you didn’t throw away. Add the onions, potatoes, bacon crisp, butter, seasonings and the quahogs that you minced finely. If using fish, just put the fillets in whole, they will break apart while cooking.
Simmer for about an hour and one half, do not boil!! The chowder should cool and be refrigerated for 24 hours so the flavors have a chance to meld together. Heat before serving and at this time pour in the cream and, again, do not boil or you will have curdled your chowder. Remove the bay leaves before serving so none of your guests will be jealous. This is a thick chowder and has no need for flour or any thickener.
Should be served piping hot on a cold night.