As rain and wind wash over Southeast like a river, and leaves fall off the alder, and the berry bushes wilt, I start thinking about chowder. Fall reminds me of cupping my hands around a bowl of warm halibut chowder and dipping in a cranberry fritter.
Though I make a variety of chowders all year long, eating a steaming bowl of chowder is one way to celebrate fall. In fact, one of my dad’s favorite foods is clam chowder, though he’s come to love all the variations I’ve made. It’s all good. I make halibut chowder, shrimp chowder, salmon chowder and more. And if I’m not in the mood for seafood, which is rare, I make chicken corn chowder.
The word “chowder” has its origin from the French word, chaudron. Maybe that’s why I like my chowder cooked in the cast iron pot with handle because it looks like a cauldron. Many of us are familiar with new England clam chowder, with a creamy milk base, or Manhattan clam chowder, which is brothier and contains tomatoes. In Southeast Alaska we use locally foraged greens and seafood to create unique flavors.
Chowder tip: Use local seasonings and seafoods.
If you haven’t made chowder before, these tips and suggestions will inspire you, and if you have experience making chowder, it’ll make you hungry. Hopefully, you’ll be inspired to make different types of chowder and use local ingredients. The first thing to know is that making chowder is about timing and sequence so prep your vegetables, potatoes, seafood, and bacon beforehand. Also, decide beforehand which kind of broth will be the base. Chicken broth works and so does fish or bone broth. Basically, it takes about an hour to make chowder and a batch of biscuits or dumplings.
Chowder tip: If your chowder is bacon free, then lightly sauté your onions, celery, and vegetables in butter for more flavor before adding the vegetables to the chowder.
First, chop anywhere from six to eight slices of bacon into small pieces and cook in a large saucepan for a few minutes until almost done, but not quite, then add chopped sweet onion (about a half cup) and about two stalks of chopped celery. Cook until the bacon is crisp, and the onion and celery are translucent. After the bacon/onion/celery are cooked, pour the contents into a strainer, straining the grease into another small pot so you can save the grease. I use the bacon grease for lightly sauteing the halibut or scallops, or whatever you’re going to use.
Chowder tip: If the seafood is smoked or salted, add your seasoning after you’ve added the fish, so the chowder won’t be too salty.
Next, scoop the crisp bacon pieces, onion, and celery into a large cast iron pot or other large pot. Then add a few cups of chicken or fish stock to the pot and turn your burner on low. Mixing chicken bouillon and water works as a broth base too. Add a cup or two of water to the pot until you have enough broth to cook the potatoes. For the potatoes, I use Yukon gold potatoes from the garden, but you can also buy them. I’ve used all types of potatoes, usually whatever’s on hand. Sometimes, I substitute yams or sweet potatoes for the regular potatoes. Chop about six to eight potatoes into small to medium bite-sized squares and add them to the simmering pot. Simmer on low if you need the time to make biscuits to go with your chowder, otherwise use medium low heat and start cooking the potatoes.
Chowder tip: You can add two different types of potatoes in a single batch of chowder.
Next, lightly sauté small chunks of halibut (or whatever seafood) in a few tablespoons of the bacon grease. Remember if your fish is already smoked and cooked you can skip this step. You’ll be adding the smoked salmon or hooligan to the pot when your potatoes are almost cooked through. I sauté the seafood just enough to let the bacon grease, and whatever spices I might add, like garlic and pepper, seep into the meat. It’ll finish cooking in the hot chowder. You don’t want to overcook your seafood. Crab and scallops can be easily overcooked, so add those seafood types to the pot of chowder after the potatoes and vegetables are done cooking in the broth.
Chowder tip: Make seafood chowder using a couple different types of seafood in a single pot.
As for the vegetables, I sneak them into my chowder. For finicky kids or Elders, it’s about being creative. Some suggestions are celery, broccoli, carrots, red peppers, and green onions. My Elder dad, who lives with me, hates vegetables, or so he says. After he declares how much he hates vegetables I remind him we just had scallop chowder and it contained carrots, zucchini, and kale.
“Well, I like that,” he says. I remind him we also had halibut enchiladas or halibut pizza with spinach and zucchini. He likes that too, he says. So maybe he does like vegetables, just not as a side dish.
You can add your vegetables at several stages. It’s up to the cook. Sauté them lightly with the bacon and onions or add them in before the potatoes are done. If you like firmer vegetables, then add them after the potatoes are cooked.
Chowder tip: You can chop your vegetables small or large or somewhere in between. Experiment with making larger chopped vegetable chunks like you would make deer stew.
Seasoning your chowder is important. Local seaweeds go well in seafood chowders. Chop red seaweed, sea lettuce, beach asparagus, or goose tongue, even small newly bloomed buds of popweed. I’ve added blanched fiddleheads and devil’s club tips to chowder.
Chowder tip: A few chopped spruce tips add flavor to your fish chowder or dumplings.
For additional flavor, I sometimes cut up a small butternut squash and boil it until soft then puree it in a blender. I mix the puree into the broth after the potatoes are cooked. After it’s mixed thoroughly, then I add the coconut milk to the pot.
I use coconut milk in my chowders because canned milk is too rich, though I grew up on homemade clam chowder made with evaporated milk. When you’re making chowder, don’t add the milk until all the vegetable and potatoes have softened slightly. This prevents curdling or overcooking. I use one can of concentrated coconut milk, though I’ve used boxed coconut/almond milk blended milk. Make sure your coconut or almond milk is unsweetened or isn’t the vanilla flavor.
If you like your chowder thick, which my dad does, then make what’s called a roux, which is a paste. Use a small mason jar and fill half of it with water, then take several forkfuls of flour and mix it one forkful at a time into the glass jar until you have a thick paste. Add the paste to the chowder after the milk is added, but before adding any dumplings. Stir until the chowder thickens a bit. Sometimes, I use cornstarch and water mixed in a jar to make a slurry for thickening the chowder.
And lastly, I typically make dumplings, biscuits, or fritters to go with the chowder. You can make fry bread too. But if you don’t have time, get out the Pilot Bread or a pack of saltines. Dumplings are made from small scoops of dough plopped on top of boiling chowder and cooked uncovered for ten minutes and then covered to cook for another ten minutes. I sometimes make baking powder biscuits. A simple biscuit recipe can be livened up by folding in a handful of lingonberries (lowbush cranberries) or blueberries into your biscuit or fritter batter. No sugar added. If you’re going to make fritters, there’s a wide range of ideas. I make halibut corn chowder with cornmeal fritters. If you like spicy, add cumin and red pepper flakes.
Finally, before serving the chowder, top the chowder with any shredded cheese you have on hand, plus a dollop of plain yogurt or sour cream.
Chowder tip: Chowder is often better the second day. Any leftover chowder can be thickened and folded into a crust to make a pot pie.