Simple Florida chowder is a seafood lover's dream


People from all over the world enjoy vacationing in Florida, and one reason is the great seafood they can get here. Florida is bordered on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and on the other by the Gulf of Mexico, offering a wealth of marine life.

Also, during the winter, when farmers in cooler parts of the globe are just planting crops, farmers in subtropical Florida are already harvesting fresh tomatoes, crisp celery and sweet carrots. These products from the sea and land combine in a silky-textured and virtually fat-free soup called Florida red chowder.

Florida red chowder is nutritious and easy to make. The secret is the pureed vegetables that are used to thicken the broth instead of cream, flour or butter. Potatoes, tomatoes, celery and a splash of zesty hot sauce add flavor and nutrients but few calories to the soup. Florida red chowder is a seafood lover's dream -- big chunks of fish or shellfish simmer in the velvety broth, creating an intense seafood flavor. Fish is also an excellent source of protein in a low-fat, wholesome diet.

The recipe can be made with any kind of fresh or frozen and thawed fish fillets. Sometimes flash-frozen fish found in the frozen-foods section of the supermarket can taste and smell fresher than the fish sold as fresh.

If buying frozen fish or shellfish, look for packages that have few ice crystals next to the fillets. Ice inside the package indicates that at some point it may have been defrosted and refrozen.

The mix of fish and shellfish is up to the individual -- shrimp, clams, squid or mussels can be substituted for all or a portion of fish fillets, if desired.

Florida red chowder

Makes 8 servings.

2 pounds fish, such as red snapper, pompano, mahi mahi, cod or grouper

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion, sliced

2 carrots, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

3 cloves garlic, peeled

1 cup clam juice (8-ounce bottle)

1 cup white wine or chicken broth

1 cup water

6 to 8 small to medium red potatoes, peeled and chopped (about 3 1/2 cups)

1 (28-ounce) can stewed, peeled tomatoes including juice

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons hot sauce or to taste

8 tablespoons Parmesan cheese for garnish (optional)

Cut fish into chunks, removing any skin or bones. Refrigerate.

Heat the oil in a large kettle over medium heat. Add the onion, carrots, celery and garlic. Saute, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft and transparent.

Add the potatoes, tomatoes, tomato paste, thyme, Worcestershire sauce, salt, clam juice, wine or broth and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer covered for 30 to 35 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, strain vegetables out of the broth. Puree the vegetables until smooth in a food mill, blender or food processor. Return the pureed mixture to the kettle and stir to combine. Taste for seasoning. Heat the mixture to a simmer over low heat.

Add the fish and cook, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, for 10 to 12 minutes longer.

Garnish each portion with optional Parmesan cheese and serve warm.

Test kitchen notes: The pureed broth can be made in advance and refrigerated for up to two days before adding the fish. If desired, the broth can be frozen up to three months before thawing and adding the fish. Use any type of firm-fleshed fish, or a mixture of fish and shellfish, in this soup. Season to taste with hot sauce.

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