Black Pearl Rockfish Chowder
Fall arrives and the green of summer gives way to an autumn pallet of auburn and gold seed heads on our farm. Combine engines come back to life, punctuated by the familiar sound of wings overhead and the honking of geese returning to their winter haven. The cacophony of ducks – always present at Black Pearl – is now augmented by the twilight bugling of sika deer on the marsh. For the Mullaney family and the farm we call home it’s a time for work and preparation. Blinds are relocated, brushed, and maintained to ensure that they will withstand the demands of hunts through what will hopefully be a cold, snowy winter. Decoys are relined and bagged, ready for another season of silent enticement for our wily quarry.
Although our focus moves from the water to the land in October, it’s important to remember that autumn brings changes in the waters of the Chesapeake and her tributaries. As the temperatures drop the resident rockfish begin to school up and head to deeper channels. Activity increases and the fish seem eager to chase top water plugs through the shallows. If an incoming tide coincides with the end of a day’s work, we head out onto the Little Choptank River where the rockfish offer the kind of light-tackle fight that will inevitably find embellishment in a fisherman’s story!
I’ve long contended that where New England is famous for its clam chowder, the Chesapeake is famous for its Rockfish Chowder. One of our family’s favorite meals for cold fall days comes from this amazing fish and warms both the body and the spirit.
Black Pearl Rockfish Chowder
Serves 6 to 8
2 to 3 rockfish frames (cut in half with kitchen shears to fit in stockpot)
1 large onion, peeled and quartered
5 stalks celery, cut into large chunks
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 quart dry vermouth or white wine
8 ounces applewood or hickory smoked bacon
4 cups chopped onions
1 cup chopped leeks, white and light green parts only
1 cup chopped celery
5 cups large diced Yukon Gold potatoes
6 cups fish stock
2 Knorr chicken bouillon cubes
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon dried thyme or 4 sprigs of fresh thyme
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
3 tablespoons flour
3 cups milk or half-and-half
3 pounds rockfish cut into 2- to 3-inch chunks
fish stock: Wash the frames thoroughly to remove any bloody bits or entrails. Place all the ingredients in a large stockpot and add enough water to cover the frames (about 3 ½ quarts). Bring to a boil, skim off foam, reduce the heat, and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain through a sieve or colander into a large pan or bowl, pressing the frames against the sieve to release all the juices from the frames. Simmer the strained stock for 15 minutes more to reduce it slightly and intensify the flavor. Set aside the 6 cups required for this recipe. Cool the remaining stock and place in storage containers. Refrigerate or freeze.
chowder: Cut bacon into pieces and brown in a stockpot. Remove bacon bits to a plate lined with paper towels. Discard all but 3 tablespoons bacon grease in pan. Add the onion, leeks, and celery to the fat and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are soft, approximately 8 minutes. Add the potatoes, fish stock, bouillon, bay leaf, ½ the cooked bacon, thyme, and freshly ground pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, partially covered, until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.
Mix the softened butter with the flour to form a smooth paste. Whisk this into the simmering broth.
If you are not serving the chowder immediately, remove from heat and allow to cool. Cover and refrigerate until just before serving. Otherwise, add the milk or half- and-half, butter, salt, and freshly ground pepper. Bring to a simmer and add the rockfish. Cook gently until fish turns opaque, about 5 minutes. Add chopped fresh parsley and serve sprinkled with the remaining bacon bits.
Note: You may substitute other white fish for the rockfish or use a combination of cod, pollock, or monkfish .