Ritual and tradition are powerful forces, both for good and for ill. Such it is with me and this salmon chowder.
I grew up eating chowder, all sorts of chowder, really, but my mom’s is the best. It is a brothy, Maine-style clam chowder that is always made from the same ingredients. always in the same way. Any deviation is apostasy.
Needless to say I developed a taste for that sort of chowder, no matter if it’s made with clams or fish or whatever. Sure, I like Manhattan “clam chowder,” but I view it as more of a perfectly nice clam soup than a proper chowder. There is also a Rhode Island style chowder with no tomato or dairy — also a lovely soup, but not a chowder.
There is, however, one incarnation of chowder I loathe: It is that hideous, gloppy monstrosity a particular set of New Englanders are known to concoct, mostly I suspect for Midwestern tourists. And I say “Midwestern” because I recently had a version of this chowder in Minnesota that was so thick you could stand a spoon in it.
My first tentative steps to break from tradition came with a perch chowder I designed specifically for the Great Lakes region. It’s made with yellow perch and Polish kielbasa and is damn good if I say so myself. This salmon chowder is my second step.
I should start by saying that what you see in the picture is not, strictly speaking, a salmon chowder: It’s made with a steelhead trout. Steelhead is very close to salmon, although it is a little leaner and a lot paler (unless you are working with pink salmon, which is the same color). Any salmon, char or trout you feel like using will work here.
I live in Northern California, where the chinook salmon is king. This is the very southern end of its range, and what, ecologically speaking, could be called the Pacific Northwest — and it is the Pacific Northwest, with its vast salmon runs, trout in the mountains, steelhead in the rivers and char in the snowy North — where I drew my inspiration here.
So my salmon chowder has a salmon stock, bacon, corn, lots of herbs and a homemade stock. None of this would fly in mum’s clam chowder.
But here’s the thing: People move West to escape tradition, to be free to be whomever they wish to be. Why can’t their chowder follow suit?
- 3 to 4 pounds salmon heads, fins and bones , gills removed
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 carrots, chopped
- 2 celery stalks, chopped
- 1 cup white wine
- 1 handful of dried mushrooms, preferably matsutake
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/4 pound thick bacon
- 1 cup chopped yellow or white onion
- 2 celery stalks, chopped
- 1 1/2 pounds potatoes, peeled and diced
- 5 tp 6 cups fish broth, or 4 cups chicken broth plus 1 to 2 cups water
- 1 to 2 pounds skinless, boneless salmon meat, cut into chunks
- 1 cup corn, fresh or thawed
- 2/3 cup heavy cream
- Black pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill or chives, for garnish
- To make the broth, put all the broth ingredients into the pot and cover with water. Bring to a bare simmer, or even just let it steep like a tea, for 30 to 45 minutes. Strain the broth. Pick any stray salmon meat you want off the bones and reserve. Discard the rest of the solids and reserve the broth.
- Wipe out the pot, add the bacon, and turn the heat to medium, and cook the bacon until crispy. Remove the bacon. Eat 1 piece. Chop the rest and reserve.
- Sauté the onion and celery in the bacon fat, stirring often, until they are soft, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the potatoes and the salmon broth and bring to a simmer. Add salt to taste. Cook until the potatoes are tender, about 15 to 20 minutes.
- When the potatoes are tender, add the corn and the chunks of salmon. Cook gently until the salmon is just cooked through, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the chopped bacon, dill, heavy cream and black pepper.
Keys to Success
- Don't get all low fat on me and sub in milk for the cream. The chowder can break and curdle. Ew.
- If you want, skip the bacon and use olive oil. I won't mind.
- Any dried mushrooms will do for the broth, not just matsutake.
- In a perfect world, you would use meat from the head and collars for this chowder, because they are fattier and nicer and won't dry out. Regular fillet meat is fine though.