Fresh seafood is at its finest when cooked delicately with very little accompaniment. There are a few exceptions, one is when it goes into a pot with a handful of diced potatoes and becomes an Irish seafood chowder. The absolute, hands down, best seafood chowder I have ever eaten was at Fat Freddy’s in Galway in the west of Ireland. The chowder was the final note to end a long day in bone chilling wind.
I was sightseeing in Galway with two friends from Seattle. That morning we boarded a small ferry to spend the day on Inis Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands. A matrix of low stone walls, thatched cottages, and determined pasture land, Inis Mor is the ultimate Irish fantasy come to life. We took a short bus tour around the island and then spent the rest of our day being pummeled by gusts of late winter ocean wind and exploring prehistoric Dún Aengus Fort.
Dún Aengus is seated on top of a high cliff and the scenery was stunning. We hiked around and explored the ancient rocky grounds snapping pictures and considering the lives of the people who came before us. Even though the sun shone most of the day the wind blew away any bits of warmth it might have provided. After a few hours we had officially turned into popsicles.
After a trip to the pub to warm up with Irish Coffees, it was time to board the boat back to Galway. The same wind that chilled us so profoundly continued to whip up the sea as we traveled eastward. The boat was in a constant state of whomp, whomp, whomp and the engines strained to get us across the water. Several of the trash cans were put into use by passengers overwhelmed by the heaving motion. By the time we reached the dock everyone aboard was a wee bit green around the gills.
Back on the main land our stomachs quickly settled. The city center buildings buffered the sea air enough that we elected to stroll the meandering streets before dinner, and then promptly got lost. It was one of those annoying sorts of getting lost when you know that you are within a block or two of where you would like to be but just can’t seem to find the right street to turn on to. And it had become dark. And colder. By the time we oriented ourselves and got seated at Fat Freddy’s I almost didn’t care what I was served provided it be HOT.
What did come was a bowl of hot creamy chowder and a basket of warm brown bread. I could write an epic poem about the way the cream caressed the tender potatoes and the little morsels of seafood that nested playfully in my bowl – but I’ll spare you the emotional outburst. My first bite was still a little too warm. I could feel the heat fill me from the inside out as it traveled from my mouth to my empty stomach. And the bread, oh the bread! I am not sure how the Irish figured out how to bake it, but I would take a slice of fresh brown bread over the French variety any day of the week. It’s dense with whole wheat and bran flour laced with the tiniest touch of sweet molasses. I don’t understand why folk musicians spent all their time writing about whiskey and beer – brown bread is the real Irish intoxicant.
That day, cold as it was, is how I would like to spend my time far more often. Together with dear friends, learning new things, and enjoying spectacular scenery. The meal at the end was charming and rustic but it was shared with friends in one of the most unusual restaurants I have visited in my travels. We probably only spent about €6 on dinner but we made a memory that will last for a lifetime.
Serve this seafood chowder with slices of traditional Irish brown bread.
- 4 oz bacon, diced
- 2 medium leeks, sliced in ½ inch rounds
- 4 large celery stalks, halved and diced
- 2 pounds Yukon Gold Potatoes, diced
- 1 pound Sunchokes, peeled and diced (may substitute an additional pound of potatoes)
- 2 - 8oz bottles of clam juice
- 3 cups 2% low fat milk, room temperature
- 12 oz evaporated milk
- 1 pound firm white fish, cut into 1-2 inch chunks - use 2 pounds if omitting shellfish
- 1 pound assorted shell fish with shells removed - shrimp, scallops, clams, squid, mussels, etc.
- 1 or more cups of chopped parsley
- Cook the bacon in large dutch oven or soup pot over medium high heat until it has turned brown and crispy. Once the bacon has browned remove it to a paper towel lined plate. Discard all but 1 tablespoon of the rendered fat.
- Add leeks and celery to pot and cook them until they begin to soften (about 5 minutes), stir frequently.
- Reduce the heat to medium and add the potatoes, sunchokes, and clam juice. Simmer the vegetables until the potatoes and sunchokes can be easily pierced by a fork - about 15 minutes.
- Reduce the heat to medium low and add all of the milk, then return bacon to the pot and add with the seafood.
- Simmer the chowder on low to medium low heat, make sure it does not begin to boil. The chowder is ready when fish has cooked through, about 15 minutes. The fish should be flaky and any shrimp should be fully pink.
- Toss in a handful or two of finely chopped parsley and add salt and pepper if desired. Keep the chowder on low heat until ready to serve.