I just reread Gabrielle Hamilton’s luscious memoir Blood, Bones & Butter. On the surface, it’s the story of a life defined by food.
But delve deeper. At its heart, it’s the story of how Hamilton, owner of New York’s Prune restaurant (http://www.prunerestaurant.com/), buys and cooks and serves food to recapture some of her most precious memories.
I think we all — to some extent — do the same.
A few years ago, my husband and I rented a house on Okracoke Island in North Carolina (http://www.ocracokeisland.com/). We took our sons, my husband’s daughter and my parents for a week of seaside breezes, sandy floors and sunburned noses. It was one of my favorite vacations … not because of anything we did, but because the pace was so perfectly slow and delicious.
One day, my husband and stepdaughter rented a spot on a deep-sea fishing boat and spent the day in the gulfstream. About 5 p.m., my boys and I wandered down to the fishing docks and waited for the boat to come in. We snacked on French fries, beer (me) and sodas (them) while an Island native played acoustic covers of 1970s ballads. (It doesn’t get much better than listening to Dave Mason’s “We Just Disagree” while you’re holding a beer, breathing salt air and listening to seagulls cry overhead.)
The fishing boat arrived on time and promptly spit out my husband, his daughter … and a 60-pound Amberjack.
No question of what was for dinner that night! We got the fish gutted, scaled and filleted, then stopped at the Okracoke general store for some fresh corn, potatoes and tomatoes. When we got back to the house, everyone pitched in to create the freshest fish chowder we’d ever eaten.
We haven’t returned to Okracoke since that trip. But I can conjure up the very essence of that vacation by making my seafood chowder. It’s a dish we often eat in the summer: The kids get a taste of vegetables they might otherwise wrinkle their noses at; we all get healthy doses of protein and essential fatty acids. I make it for family dinners and for dinner parties. In fact, it’ll be the main course at my book club this week.
But those are just the side benefits. The real reason I love my fish chowder is for what it represents. It recreates — for just a moment — a week of seaside breezes, sandy floors, sunburned noses …
… and family.
This — like so many recipes — is infinitely adaptable. Use whatever vegetables, spices, herbs and broths you have on hand; use any kind of fish or seafood, or forego the protein entirely. In the years since our Okracoke trip, I’ve added shrimp and chicken sausages to the mix. However you decide to make it, be sure to season with salt and pepper and to taste as you go.
Heat 2-3 tablespoons olive oil in a Dutch oven until shimmery. Add 1 chopped onion, 1 chopped fennel bulb, 1 chopped red pepper, and 2-3 peeled and chopped carrots to the pot. Saute until the onion is translucent.
Add 3-4 finely minced garlic cloves and a generous pinch of saffron. Stir for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
Add 1 to 2 medium-size, diced Yukon Gold or red-skin potatoes (I never peel them) and 2 to 3 chopped tomatoes. (You can substitute a 14.5-ounce can of diced tomatoes if you’d like.) Pour in 1/2 cup red or white wine and 4 cups chicken broth.
Bring everything to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, or until your vegetables are soft and the flavors have developed.
Turn off the heat. (Yes, turn it off! Your soup is hot enough to cook what’s coming.) Stir in 3-4 white fish fillets that have been cut into chunks; at least 1 cup corn kernels (frozen if you can’t get fresh) and a handful of fresh herbs. Cover the pot for a couple of minutes so the fish cooks.
Before serving, squeeze in the juice of half a lemon or orange. Serve with lots of crusty bread and a saffron aioli if desired.