I’m not sure that this is a chowder. It might be a mix of Manhattan chowder, bouillabaisse, cioppino, and maybe chili if that’s even possible. But, that’s not what’s important here. This was one of those recipes that had me doing a happy dance in the kitchen as I tasted while I cooked. It's from the March 2011 issue of Food and Wine. A soup base was built from torn pieces of ancho chiles, onion, garlic, and fennel seeds that simmered in white wine before crushed tomatoes were added. Long before any seafood made its way into the soup, it already tasted like it was intended to be there. The flavor from the fennel seeds was like a splash of Pernod in bouillabaisse. The soup base was pureed and then potatoes, red onion, chopped fennel bulb, and corn formed the building blocks of the chowder before shrimp, halibut, and clams were added. The aroma from the stove was already fantastic from the earthy chiles, aromatics, and fennel, and then some smoked paprika made it even better. There was a lot going on in this soup, but all of those flavors were mingling very harmoniously. I was pretty sure I had a winner of a meal on my hands, and soon enough, that suspicion was confirmed. I should explain that Kurt doesn’t always freely offer his opinion of meals. Usually, I have to ask, and usually, his answer is that “it’s good” or “it’s fine.” Clearly, I have a more emotional attachment to food to say the least. This time, with no prompting whatsoever, he proclaimed his delight, saying something like “now this is great flavor,” and coming from him, that’s extremely high praise.
There are multiple steps to making this so-called chowder, but there’s a perfect stopping place if you’d like to start prepping in advance. You begin by cooking chopped yellow onion, some smashed cloves of garlic, torn pieces of ancho chiles, and fennel seeds in oil in a large pot. When the onion is browned, some white wine is added and simmered until reduced by half. Canned crushed tomatoes and water are then added, the mix is brought to a boil, and it is simmered again until the vegetables are very tender. You should allow the mixture to cool slightly, and meanwhile, whole milk is added for a touch of richness. This soup base is then pureed in batches, and after pureeing, you could stop here and store the soup in the refrigerator until you’re ready to continue. Next, clams are steamed in water and then removed from their shells and chopped when cool enough to handle. The clam cooking broth is then strained, added to the pureed soup base, and that is set aside. Chopped potatoes are cooked in oil until browned, and then minced red onion, finely diced celery and fennel bulb, and thawed, frozen corn kernels are added followed by smoked paprika. After the cooking the vegetables briefly, the soup base is returned to the pot and brought to a boil. Last, shrimp, chunks of halibut, and the chopped clams are added to the soup and simmered just a few more minutes.
It’s a little unusual to find a hearty soup with big, earthy flavors and lots of spice that includes seafood, and it’s just as unlikely to see Southwestern flavors mixed with fennel seed and chopped fennel bulb. Somehow, it all worked together beautifully. The potatoes made it hearty and substantial, the anchos delivered some subtle spice, and the seafood was fresh and light among everything else. This is one for the permanent file.