Chowder, like every other American standard, is an ever-evolving theme into which almost infinite variations may be woven.
“CHOWDER” CAME into English from the French word “chaudiere,” which translates as kettle. In French-speaking zones of eastern Canada, the chaudiere was traditionally filled with fish soup built on a foundation of salt pork and dried bread or crackers. That tradition carried into New England, where the soup was dolled up with potatoes, clams and milk.
When I started cooking in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1980s, I was fairly confident that I knew a thing or two about chowder. I brought with me an understanding born during a brief stint at college in New England. But decades on, I realize that chowder, like every other American standard, is an ever-evolving theme into which almost infinite variations may be woven.
In our region, a chowder made from salmon was inevitable. When you buy whole salmon and remove the filets, you’re left with at least a third of the weight of the fish in the form of trim and bones that might otherwise end up as bait for a crab trap. But if the carcass is simmered in water, it can become a flavorful, nourishing stock.
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Greg Atkinson is a Seattle-area chef, author and consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Makes 6 servings
For the salmon stock
About 2 pounds salmon bones, tail, fins and/or head
1 small onion, sliced, peel and all
1 stalk celery, roughly chopped
1 whole fennel bulb, chopped, with some fronds reserved for garnish
1/2 teaspoon ground black peppercorns, cracked
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup white wine
6 cups water
For the chowder
1/4 pound (4 thick slices) smoked bacon
2 tablespoons corn oil, optional
1/4 cup flour
1/2 pound (about 1 medium) yellow onion, peeled and diced
1/2 pound (about 3 stalks) celery, diced
1 teaspoon fresh garlic, grated
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
4 cups salmon stock
1 pound (about 2 medium) Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced
2 cups heavy cream, preferably organic
1 pound salmon filet, cut into 1-inch-by-1/2-inch strips
1. To make the stock: In a heavy stock pot, pile in the salmon bones, onions, celery, fennel, pepper, bay leaf and wine. Add water to cover and bring the mixture to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the mixture until the fish parts are falling apart and the vegetables have yielded most of their flavor, about 25 minutes.
2. To start the chowder: Cut the bacon into 1/8-inch bits and cook them in a large soup pot over medium-high heat until the bacon is crisp. Lift the bits out of the rendered fat and set aside; if the bacon doesn’t yield much fat, stir in the 2 tablespoons oil. Stir the flour into the fat to make a smooth paste and keep stirring until it bubbles; then stir the onions, celery, garlic and ginger into the fat.
3. Cook until the vegetables are softened but not browned, about 2 minutes, then stir in the salmon stock, incorporating the flavorful particles stuck to the bottom of the pan. Stir in the diced potatoes. Cover, reduce heat to low and cook until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes. (Note, the soup may be prepared ahead up to this point and held warm or chilled until 15 minutes before serving.)
4. Stir the cream into the soup and increase the heat to medium high, stirring to prevent it from sticking. When the soup returns to a boil, stir in the salmon and cook until it’s firm and opaque, about 5 minutes. Serve hot with crisp bacon and a few fennel sprigs floating on top.
© Greg Atkinson, 2012