My lovely sister Sue and one of my nephews, Paul and his family live in Southern Ireland (far too far away) right by the Atlantic Ocean, where the days are long (unless you’re my sister) and the nights are lively in the local pubs with music and Guinness.
Being right by the sea, there is an abundance of fish and sea food which is taken for granted in a spectacular way. In every pub, there is a version of seafood chowder. It will always be different from the chowder that you ate in the pub 100 yards down the road, but it will always be served with fresh soda bread. When the chowder arrives at the table, you dip your spoon into the deepest corners of the bowl and bring it to the surface to see what treasure it holds within its savoury pockets. You don’t always recognise some of the creatures that are in some of the bowls, but the broth that had become the creature’s murky habitat is always a joy to behold! Some of them were rich, creamy and opulent with mussels, crab and white, flaky fish; others were vaguely gritty with tiny unrecognisable sea creatures and smaller flakes of grey fish. Both of them delicious and special in their own way.
Here is my version of Sea Food Chowder and Soda Bread. It’s really easy to do after the basic preparation so I hope, if you love fish and seafood as much as me, you’ll give it a go. It will serve 4.
Make the Soda Bread first and you can start the Chowder while it’s cooking.
You can add fresh mussels to this recipe if you like them. You can cook them ahead of making the soup. Don’t be afraid of preparing fresh mussels – just ask for a few from the fishmonger. When you get them home, put them in your clean washing up bowl with cold water. Using a fresh scouring pad, give each mussel a scrub and then pull off the ‘beard’ using your fingers or a small knife. The beard is just what the mussel uses to hold onto the ropes/rocks that they live on. Put into a small saucepan with a small mug of water. Put the lid on and bring to the boil. Cook for 3 or 4 minutes until the shells have opened up. Throw any away that don’t open. Drain, but keep the cooking water.
The only ‘different’ thing that you have to buy for Soda Bread is buttermilk. It’s easy to find in all supermarkets now – usually by the cream and it’s only about 50-60p. If you really can’t find it, you can use plain yogurt, diluted with a little milk.
If you have a large casserole pot, you can cook the bread in there. Traditionally Soda Bread was made in a cast iron pot suspended over fire. This kept steam around the bread and keeps it moist during cooking. If you haven’t got a pot, you can just put the bread dough on a baking tray.
150g plain white flour 150g wholemeal flour (or any other type of wholegrain flour – spelt, rye, fine oatmeal, multigrain etc), 1/2 tsp salt, 1tsp bicarbonate of soda, 250ml buttermilk – you may need a little more or a little less depending on your flour, but use milk/yogurt if you need more, rather than buying two pots of buttermilk.
I like to add a handful of fresh chopped herbs (dill, parsley, basil etc) but this is purely optional. You could also throw in a handful of grated/chopped cheese if you’d like to.
Heat the oven to 200C, 400F or gas mark 6.
Throw a small amount of wholegrain flour into the bottom of the casserole dish, or onto a baking tray.
Sift the flours and bicarbonate of soda together (adding any bran in the sieve to the sifted flour). Add the salt. Stir in chopped herbs and/or cheese if using.
Stir in enough buttermilk to make a soft, sticky dough that sticks to your fingers. Handle the dough as little as possible as this keeps it light. Just stir with a wooden spoon until everything is mixed thoroughly and then tip onto a floured surface.
Don’t knead, just bring the dough together in a ball and put it in the casserole dish or on the baking tray. Score a cross into the top of the bread with a sharp knife and put straight into the oven. If using a casserole dish, put the lid on the casserole dish.
This is my recipe for Seafood Chowder – the ingredients are just a rough guide, feel free to omit or add to the various vegetables, herbs and fish as you think. Just go with it in the true Irish way.
Start off by poaching the smoked fish and preparing the fresh fish. You’ll need:
1kg of fish including (or not) seafood – around 300-400g of that should be smoked white fish (see if you can get the natural coloured smoked fish rather than the vivid yellow one). Get small amounts of lots of different types of fresh fish like: a few (a couple each) raw prawns, some mussels, cheap white fish such as River Cobbler, Pollack etc (or expensive haddock/cod), salmon etc.
To poach the smoked fish:
Cover with a lid, turn up the heat until the milk is hot and then put on the lowest heat possible. Leave until the fish is cooked (e.g. it’s flaky, around 10 minutes) and then turn the heat off. When the milk has cooled a little, remove the fish gently onto a plate and strain the milk through a sieve, reserving the milk. Discard the vegetables.
Remove any skin and bones from the fish and pull apart into big chunks.
To make the base of the soup: 1 medium onion finely chopped, 1 leek, washed and finely chopped, 1 large potato, peeled and finely chopped, 1 stick of celery, finely chopped, 1 bay leaf. Some fresh parsley/chives/dill.
Melt a large knob of butter and a splash of sunflower oil in a large saucepan and add the onions. Cook for a couple of minutes and then add the leeks. Cook for another couple of minutes and then add the rest of the prepared vegetables. Cook on high for a couple of minutes and then turn down to low, cover with a lid and cook until the vegetables (particularly the potatoes) have started to soften (around 5-10 minutes). Add around 1.5 litres of water along with 1 tsp salt. Cook for 20 minutes until all of the vegetables are very soft. Remove and discard the bay leaf. Using either a stick blender or food processor, puree the vegetables OR if you prefer a chunkier soup, take out a good 1/4 of the cooked vegetables and leave them to one side before blending the rest. Put the reserved vegetables back in once the rest have been pureed.
Taste and add pepper but not more salt at this point.
Add the milk that the fish cooked in, to the soup base along with the water that the mussels were cooked in if you’re using them. Turn the heat up and then add the raw fish. Cook without boiling, for 5 minutes or so until the fish is cooked through. Then add any raw prawns that you have. Keep the heat on low and gently stir in a handful of chopped parsley/chives/dill (dill is my all time favourite herb – it makes me hungry just thinking about it!).
Taste and add more salt and pepper until you’re happy with the seasoning.
Serve in warm bowls with an extra sprinkle of chopped herbs and a wedge of soda bread.
Hope you like it!