If you are looking for a chowder that is deeply flavored and hearty but not overly rich, this is it. It's perfect for a casual occasion, but the "meatballs" deliver an element of surprise, along the lines of an optical illusion, and make it special.
The idea for this chowder came from an old San Francisco recipe for "Force Meatballs," originally printed in a 1907 cookbook called "Joe Tilden's Recipes for Epicures" and reprinted in Richard Hooker's "Book of Chowders." The meatballs were made from crabmeat. Tilden, a renowned Bay Area amateur cook, left only these instructions for his meatballs: "Serve in any fish chowder or soup."
Servings: 6 - 8
- For the crab meatballs
- 1 pound lump (not jumbo lump) crabmeat, picked over to remove any shells and cartilage
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/4 cup whole milk
- 1 heaping teaspoon Colman's dry English mustard
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 ounces oyster crackers, finely ground (about 1 cup)
- Kosher or sea salt
- Hot pepper sauce, such as Tabasco
- About 1 cup vegetable oil, for cooking the meatballs
- For the chowder
- 4 thick slices uncooked bacon, cut into 1/3-inch-wide strips
- 3 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped (1 tablespoon)
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 medium onion, cut into 3/4-inch dice
- 1 medium green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 2 dried bay leaves (or 1 fresh bay leaf)
- 1 tablespoon Old Bay seasoning
- 1 1/2 pounds (3 to 4 medium) Yukon Gold or other yellow-fleshed potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch dice
- 4 cups store-bought crab stock (may substitute seafood stock, fish stock or low-sodium chicken broth)
- 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, with their juice
- Kosher or sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 pound lump crabmeat, picked over to remove any shells and cartilage (may substitute one 12-ounce skinless fillet of cod, grouper or hake, cut into 1-inch pieces)
- 1/4 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
For the crab meatballs: Line a rimmed baking sheet with waxed paper.
Place the crabmeat in a medium mixing bowl and shred with a fork. Add the eggs, milk, dry mustard, pepper and cracker crumbs; mix well. Season with salt and hot pepper sauce to taste. Moisten your hands and roll the mixture into balls that are 3/4 to 1 inch in diameter (about 1/2 ounce each); keep your hands slightly wet so the balls are very smooth. Place on the prepared baking sheet. There should be 30 to 36 balls. Cover and refrigerate while you prepare the chowder.
For the chowder: Heat a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over low heat and add the bacon. Once it has rendered a few tablespoons of fat, increase the heat to medium and cook until the bacon is a crisp golden brown. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat, leaving the bacon in the pot.
Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds, taking care not to let it brown or burn. Add the butter, onion, bell pepper, bay leaves and Old Bay Seasoning; cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until the onion and pepper have softened but not browned.
Add the potatoes and crab stock; increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Cover the pot and cook the potatoes vigorously for about 10 minutes, until they are soft on the outside but still firm in the center. If the broth hasn't thickened slightly, smash a few potatoes against the side of the pot and cook for 1 to 2 minutes to release their starch.
Add the tomatoes and bring the broth back to barely boiling at the edges; adjust the heat as necessary. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from the heat and cover while you cook the meatballs.
Line a baking sheet with paper towels.
Place a medium skillet or saute pan over medium-high heat, add about 1/2 inch of vegetable oil and heat to about 350 degrees. Carefully but quickly add 8 to 10 meatballs to the hot oil and fry them, turning them as needed, until they are a rich brown color on all sides (so they resemble traditional meatballs). Use a slotted spoon to transfer the meatballs to the lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining meatballs.
Reheat the chowder over medium-low heat and stir in the crabmeat or pieces of fish. Cook until the crab is heated through or the fish is cooked through.
Ladle the chowder into shallow bowls or large soup plates. Place 4 or 5 meatballs in each bowl and sprinkle generously with the chopped parsley. Serve any remaining meatballs on a plate or platter so your guests can help themselves to more if they wish.
Adapted from "50 Chowders: One-Pot Meals -- Clam, Corn & Beyond," by Jasper White (Scribner, 2000).
Tested by Maryann Haggerty.
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