Spring is full of noisy pleasures, but there are quieter joys too. There are potatoes.
Potatoes? Yes, potatoes. Specifically, the freshly dug ones that come from the Imperial Valley and the southern San Joaquin Valley at this time of year.
New potatoes are more moist than stored spuds and cook up creamier and more flavorful. Especially good are boiling or thin-skinned potatoes. (You can get new baking potatoes, but because you want bakers to come out dry and fluffy, it seems to me to be beside the point.)
Red-skinned or white, new potatoes taste about the same. But also look for the yellow-skinned Yukon Golds, which have a distinctive taste that some call buttery (I think they're just intensely potato-ey). If you're lucky, you might even find some fingerlings, which I think have the most delicate texture and flavor of any potatoes.
Green garlic is another spring pleasure that farmers' market shoppers know well (and given America's love of everything garlicky, it's only a matter of time before it begins to appear in supermarkets).
Technically the immature garlic plant, green garlic looks like a green onion with a swollen base. Green garlic ranges in maturity, the youngest having slightly bulbous bottoms, the oldest having tiny, fully formed cloves barely covered by thin paper. The unifying theme is the scallion-like tops. And, of course, the warm, frank garlic taste and smell. Quiet as its reputation may be, there's nothing understated about its flavor.
Salmon comes in spring too. That might be surprising to some since you can find farmed fish in the market all year round (there's so much salmon it sometimes seems like it's becoming the real chicken of the sea--in fact, it's sometimes even cheaper than chicken).
But true wild salmon, somewhat denser fleshed with a much deeper flavor, begin their spawning runs about now. It's a little pricier than the farmed stuff, but the flavor makes it worth it for a special treat.
I made this chowder the first time with some leftover Copper River salmon. I had prepared the salmon the night before in my favorite way, stolen--or should I say borrowed--from Patricia Wells' fine book "Simply French" (William Morrow, 1991), written with Joel Robuchon. Take salmon fillets and slice through the skin in a diamond pattern just to the meat. Heat the oil in a skillet until it is almost smoking, then put the fish in skin side down. Watch the side of the fish as the cooked color moves higher and higher. When it is about half done, flip the fish over onto the meat side for about one minute and then remove the pan from the heat. This crisps the salmon skin almost like a sushi bar preparation but leaves the meat moist.
Using the leftover salmon with the skin taken off, this chowder came together in only about a half-hour, pretty amazing considering the depth of flavor. Starting with raw fish wouldn't take much longer.
Now you may be wondering about fixing chowder in Southern California in the spring. It may seem more like something you'd have on a freezing, wind-blown night huddled in a damp cabin on the Maine coast.
Granted, those rich, creamy chowders, filled with chunks of potatoes and bits of meat and fish, are the culinary equivalent of a goose-down comforter. But there are chowders and then there is this chowder, more of a bisque, really, barely thickened by half and half.
Think of it as a lighter, quieter springtime version of chowder. Certainly the ingredients fit that description.
2 tablespoons butter
4 slices bacon, chopped
4 stalks green garlic, chopped
1 pound skinless salmon, raw or cooked
4 cups fish broth, or 2 cups chicken broth diluted with 2 cups water
1/2 pound new potatoes, cut in 1-inch chunks
2 cups half and half
1 teaspoon salt
Melt butter over medium heat in bottom of large soup pot. Add bacon and cook until soft. Add chopped garlic and continue cooking until garlic is soft, about 5 minutes.
If using raw salmon, cut in chunks and add with broth and new potatoes. Bring to boil over medium-high heat and immediately reduce heat to simmer. Cook until potatoes are tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Salmon should be moist but flaking. If using cooked salmon, add after potatoes are tender.
Add half and half and salt and increase heat to high. Bring to simmer, then reduce heat immediately and cook until soup thickens slightly, about 5 minutes. (Soup will never become as thick as flour-thickened chowder.) Grind black pepper generously over top and serve.
6 to 8 servings. Each serving:
367 calories; 878 mg sodium; 75 mg cholesterol; 27 grams fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams protein; 0.19 gram fiber.
* Platter from Pallets of Plates, South Pasadena.