I love reading cookbooks and recipes, but I don’t actually follow them when I cook any more. Mostly, I make stuff up. It’s more fun that way and since I’m mostly cooking for myself, I don’t worry about screwing up. And when I cook for other people, they’re always people who love me enough to be appreciative, whether or not I’ve screwed up. 🙂 *
That said, this is a pretty solid outline of a dairy-free chowder… well, process. Not exactly a recipe, more of a strategy for creating your own ideal combination of tastes and flavors in a chowder.
A cooking fat — butter is nice**, olive oil is fine, coconut oil works…
Chicken broth — (or seafood broth or maybe veggie broth, but not beef broth, that flavor would be wrong)
Coconut milk — the high-fat kind that comes in a can, with plenty of cream and richness
A green herb, preferably fresh — cilantro or parsley or maybe rosemary. Probably not mint, though. Basil could be interesting.
Salt & pepper, to taste
If you like real recipes, you’re looking at that list and making faces right now. What quantities? What types of spices or vegetables or seafood? But it depends on how much soup you want to make and what flavors you like. And how you think the flavors will blend together. Shrimp is great with curry, but for the bay scallops I used just ginger powder, because I didn’t want to drown out that ocean flavor they have. A boring white fish might be good with red pepper, but you’d want to be more sparing with your quantity of red pepper (vs, say, ginger powder) so as not to overpower the other flavors. I could make guesses but this is really a process recipe, not a prescription.
Heat/melt your cooking fat over medium heat. Add your spices to the fat and warm them, but don’t let them brown. Sort of swirl them around in the fat for thirty seconds or a minute or two, until you see the fat bubbling around them, in a pleasant but not overly energetic sizzle. (That’s called “blooming” the spices and it enhances their flavor.)
Add your vegetables and saute them in the spiced oil. You want them lightly browned and carmelized, because that enhances their flavor, but the timing will depend on what vegetables you’ve used. The basics of onion, carrot, celery, and potato are good, but I’ve also tried cauliflower, mushroom, zucchini, squash, sweet potato and broccoli. If you want to use leafy greens, you might wait to add them until the end (unless you’re using kale or chard or one of the tougher greens that need more cooking time). And the broccoli… well, that might work with fish, but I didn’t like it with the bay scallops much.
Add your chicken broth and your coconut milk and gently stir. I think I generally use about two cups of chicken broth to a can of coconut milk to get two servings of soup. Coconut milk sometimes separates, which is annoying, but stir it thoroughly or blend it to get it smooth again.
Lower the heat and let the soup simmer for long enough to thoroughly cook your carmelized vegetables. Your timing on that is going to depend on what vegetables you used. Potatoes cook slowly, zucchini might be cooked after the sautéing. But somewhere between ten to twenty minutes of simmering is about right. This should also be reducing your broth, so making the soup thicker.
Add your seafood and let it cook. Usually that’s five minutes or so. It depends on whether your seafood is frozen, obviously, and how much of it you’ve used.
Take a spoonful of the chowder and let it drip back into the pan. Is it thick enough for you? If not, you can let it simmer for longer, or you can ladle some of the broth and vegetables into the cup of an immersion blender and blend it, then return the blended soup to the pan and stir. You could also make a roux (a mix of flour and fat used to thicken sauces) but that always seems like a lot of work to me, plus I no longer use flour, so the blended veggie route is my preference. Or just appreciating the soup as a lighter chowder, to be honest.
If you decided to use leafy greens, toss them in now and give them a minute or two to soften and wilt. Don’t let them cook too long, though, or they’ll turn into weird sludge.
Taste your soup. Does it need salt? If yes, add a little.
Put the soup into a bowl or bowls, chop up your green herb and sprinkle it on top, also maybe some black pepper. Why the herb on top, not mixed in? Because that way different mouthfuls have different tastes, instead of all the flavors blending together. I don’t want my chowder to taste entirely like cilantro, but a little cilantro flavor (or parsley flavor) in some bites makes for a nice contrast. (Bites seems like the wrong word for soup, but swallows sounds wrong, too.)
I feel like I should give credit now to some soup recipe somewhere — it’s not as if I didn’t follow lots of them in the past. Mostly, though, this is just my trial-and-error process, developed by making myself soup for lunch on a regular basis. I cannot promise it will work for every or any combination of seafood and spices and vegetables: I don’t personally think, for example, that I would try cinnamon shrimp broccoli chowder. That doesn’t sound appealing. But I could see a cinnamon squash chowder, maybe with chicken instead of seafood, and with the veggies definitely blended to make it truly thick? Hmm, now I want to go cook that. It sounds yummy. Also, I love citrus flavors but citrus and milk — even coconut milk — have not worked well together in my experience. I don’t think I’d try a lemon-y chowder.
But the ginger bay scallop chowder was delicious, curry seafood chowder has also been great, spicy shrimp, also great. And it’s fun to experiment, of course. This process is a great framework for playing in the kitchen.
*I feel like I should add, with the exception of R, everyone I cook for is perfectly happy to have me do the cooking. R lived with me while I learned to cook, starting from “able to burn hard-boiled eggs” (true story) to where I am today, so he still always votes for restaurants. But he’s eaten variants of this chowder recipe many times and always approves!
**Edited to add: also, obviously, if you’re going the non-dairy route, don’t use butter as your cooking fat.