As a thickened fish stew, chowder is old as the hills. Practically every coastal community has at some point in its history thrown starch and vegetables at the simmering liquor of their fish of choice, adding a splash of dairy if there was a cow on hand. The word itself may track back to 16th century Cornwall, via much older French terms for stewpot. But it’s hard to be sure – chowder is one of those things that has just popped up all over the world, getting codified when we started writing recipes down more stringently.
Personally, I like to make it with crab meat and sweetcorn, but I do love the smokiness you get in Cullen Skink. So for Veguary, I wondered if you could work up a milder but still silky-satisfying version using smoked tofu.
You basically can.
Interesting side note: as Felicity Cloake spotted when developing her clam chowder recipe, early New England versions were thickened with crackers/biscuits.
Chapter fifteen of Moby Dick is called simple “Chowder”, and explains:
It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.
I’m not sold on a biscuit base, although I agree absolutely about the pepper. I also don’t think Melville would be very happy with what I’ve done here today.
Smoked tofu? WTF?
Setting out, I was pretty sure that smoked tofu was an actual thing, and not just something I’d assumed must exist. This surety took a bit of a knock, however, when I was if not quite laughed-out-of then politely bemused-away-from the Korean supermarket on Mill Rd for having the temerity to ask if they stocked any.
This is the kind of thing that makes my partner shake his head and mutter “white boy is very white”.
I guess it’s a Western interpretation? The one I picked was unlike the firm tofu I’m used to buying from asian stores. Texturally, it was solid, verging on crumbly, and almost like seitan.
In the end I found some at the hippie place on Mill Rd (it’s quite good). They had three kinds, and I picked the one that managed to smell most strongly of woodsmoke through the packaging. You can also buy smoked tofu from Waitrose and in packs of 8 from Amazon.
- Smoked tofu, 250g
- Leek, 1 large
- Onion, 1 small
- Potato, 1 (about 200g)
- Celery, 1 stick
- Sweetcorn, 150g tin (drained weight)
- Crème fraiche, 3tbsp
- Vegetable stock, 600ml
- Milk, 150ml
- Flour, 1tbsp (maybe 1.5)
- Bay leaf, 1-2
- Dried parsley, up to 1/4tsp
- Black pepper, lots
- Butter for frying
Finely dice the onion and celery. Slice the leek into rings, using as much of the green as you can.
Optionally: quickly fry the tofu pieces in quite hot oil, until they colour a bit on each side. This will firm them up if they’re at the softer end of things, and maybe add body. But it’s not entirely necessary.
In a heavy saucepan or casserole, set the onions and celery frying in the butter on a low heat for about 5 mins. Add the leeks, and continue to cook until everything is nice and soft; that’ll be at least another 5.
Add the flour, stirring to amalgamate, and let it cook out for a minute.
Add the some of the stock, working it until it’s thick and saucy. Add the cream and remaining liquid ingredients, and then the corn, potato, tofu, herbs and seasoning. Simmer gently for 20 minutes or so. If it thickens more than you like, add a little milk or water. Or, for extra thickening, mash some of the potato into the sauce, and simmer it a bit more.
Remove the bay leaf, and serve with plenty of crusty bread, maybe a scattering of chopped chives.
The base flavour is pretty much a corn chowder. The smokiness of the tofu doesn’t permeate as it would with smoked haddock. It mingles a bit, but is most intense on the bite. It’s creamy, and slightly sweet from the corn.
I was concerned that the tofu – being so firm – would be chalky or crumbly, and while it would certainly work better with a softer version, it was still quite succulent. You could veganify it, too, by using a fairly flavour-neutral dairy substitute. Maybe one of the simpler nut milks? Or oat milk? That would probably work.
This really benefits from letting it sit for a bit so the flavours can infuse and amalgamate. That means it’ll reheat well, and stand up to making ahead of time. I’m not sure about freezing.