Winter temps mean that our bigger, more glamorous game fish have headed to warmer oceans but shellfish hunting season is in full swing, and despite the colder temps we enjoy some of our best visibility this time of year. But how do we deal with cooling water and colder air temps? Easy! Smart divers know that there's nothing that fuels a full day of diving like a hot thermos full of chowder...
Here is my go-to chowder recipe, featuring some premium wild caught SoCal ingredients. It is a little bit involved but this chowder will keep well in the fridge for at least a week, and can be made in stages; the stock, which is essential, can be made while cooking for other dishes and then frozen until you need it. This is also a large recipe, basically made with limits of big scallops (10 per day) and mussels (10 lbs in the shell), a couple of lobsters, and whatever good firm white fish you've got on hand or in the freezer. Because I find digging clams a lot more work--and more scarce--than picking mussels, I use mussels instead of clams in my chowders and paella.
Pictured above: Raw chowder ingredients. Some gulf grouper fillets, lobster tail medallions, chopped clean mussels, and slivered scallops.
BEST WILD SOCAL SEAFOOD CHOWDER
- 12 oz firm white fish fillets (white seabass, cabezon, halibut, lingcod, or calico bass)
- 8-10 pounds live mussels (for about 16 oz cleaned meats, chopped roughly)
- 16 oz cleaned wild scallop meats (slivered)
- 2 live spiny lobsters (about 12 oz meat)
- 3/4 cup butter
- 6 slices bacon, copped (optional)
- large onion, chopped
- 3/4 cup flour
- 3 stalks celery (sliced)
- 1 large carrot (sliced)
- 2 medium potatoes (peeled and cubed)
- kernels from 2 ears white corn
- 2 cups white wine
- 8 cups stock/water
- 4 cups heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons fresh tarragon (chopped)
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley (diced)
- 2 teaspoons fresh thyme (diced)
- 1 tablespoon Old Bay
- 1 tablespoon Lillet
- ground black pepper to taste
Make stock/prep seafood:
Rinse mussels well, but don’t worry about scrubbing the shells. If they’ve been taken off a beach you’ll need to soak them in fresh water for an hour to get them to spit sand. Mussels from any kind of offshore structure such as deep mooring lines, rigs, or pinnacles will not have any sand in them. Put 3 cups of water in the bottom of a large pot with a tight fitting lid and a steamer basket. Steam the mussels for 10 minutes until shells are opened. Discard any unopened mussels. Pull the meat out of the shells and cut the beards off with scissors to get clean meats. Rinse meats in a bowl of cold fresh water and set aside in your fridge. Discard the shells and beards. Save the water in the bottom of your pot.
Rinse lobsters well in cold fresh water. Tail them. Tails will be cut into medallions and added later. To make the medallions, push a heavy knife through the gaps in the tail segments and cut the tendons connecting the segments. Split the heads using poultry shears and put them in your pot. Steam for 20 minutes, using the same water the mussels were steamed in. If you have time or have large heads, you can pull the meat out of the heads once they’ve cooled and add that to the chowder--head, boddy, and leg meat has a great texture, different than the tail meat but it's a good deal more work to get at. If you aren't inclined to dig it out, discard the heads; we just wanted to at minimum steam them to flavor our stock.
Once the stock has cooled, filter it through a cheese cloth. If your mussels weren’t soaked in fresh water it will be very salty. Regardless, it will be flavorful, and is essential when it comes to making a standout chowder. Water or chicken broth just isn’t the same! Measure it out, you should have around 3 cups but it doesn’t really matter since it will be diluted with enough water to make the chowder.
Scallop meats should be sliced into thin flakes against the grain, otherwise they’ll be too tough. Fish should be chunked into 1 or 2 inch cubes. One of these days I'll do a good scallop hunting blog post but a limit of 10 proper scallops will yield well over a pound of cleaned meats.
Put it all together:
Saute the onions and optional bacon in the butter until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the flour, stir to make a paste. Add white wine, stir. Add the seafood stock you made plus enough water to be 8 cups total. Add the carrots, celery, corn, potatoes, Old Bay, parsley and thyme.
Bring to boil, then turn the heat down to very low boil and cook until the veggies are softened, about another 20 minutes. Add the fish and any raw lobster, as well as the heavy cream and tarragon. Cook about 10 minutes at low boil.
Turn it down to simmer and stir in the cooked mussels and scallop slivers. Cover and simmer on very low heat for another 20 minutes. Add cracked black pepper to taste. If you made the stock from offshore mussels you probably won’t need to add any salt, but if you soaked them in fresh water to spit sand you may want to add a little salt.
Serve with toasted bread or oyster crackers. You can garnish it with a little bit more parsely or tarragon.