Planet Alaska: chowder season | Juno’s Empire

When the rain and wind fell on the southeast like a river, the leaves of the alder fell, and the berry bushes withered, I began to think of chowder. Fall reminds me of wrapping my hands around a bowl of warm halibut and dipping into a cranberry muffin.

Although I make a variety of chowder dishes all year long, eating a hot bowl of chowder is one way to celebrate fall. In fact, one of my dad’s favorite foods is clam chowder, although he has come to love all the variations I made. Everything is good. I make halibut soup, shrimp chowder, salmon chowder and more. And if I’m not in the mood for seafood, which is a rarity, I make chicken and corn soup.

The word “soup” comes from the French word “chodron”. Maybe that’s why I like chowder cooked in a cast iron pot with a 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 broth and contains tomatoes. In Southeast Alaska, we use locally produced greens and seafood to create unique flavors.

This image shows Wrangell's seaweed shrimp chowder.  Vivian Faith Prescott/For Capital Weekly)

This image shows Wrangell’s seaweed shrimp chowder. Vivian Faith Prescott/For Capital Weekly)

Chowder tip: Use local spices and seafood.

If you’ve never made chowder before, these tips and suggestions will inspire you, and if you have experience making chowder, they’ll leave you hungry. We hope you will 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 prepare vegetables, potatoes, seafood, and bacon in advance. Also, decide in advance what kind of broth will be the base. Chicken broth works as well as fish or bone broth. Basically, making chowder and a batch of crackers or dumplings takes about an hour.

Chowder tip: If your chowder is bacon-free, saute the onions, celery, and vegetables in a little butter for more flavor before adding the vegetables to the chowder.

First, cut six to eight strips of bacon into small pieces and cook in a large saucepan for a few minutes until almost done, but not completely, then add the chopped sweet onion (about ½ cup) and about 2 stalks of chopped celery. Cook until bacon is crisp, and onions and celery are translucent. After the bacon/onion/celery is cooked, pour the contents into a colander, draining the grease into another small bowl so you can save the grease. I use bacon grease to lightly fry halibut or scallops, or whatever you’re going to use.

Halibut soup at Mickey's Fishcamp in Wrangell.  (Vivien Faith Prescott/For Capital City Weekly)

Halibut soup at Mickey’s Fishcamp in Wrangell. (Vivien Faith Prescott/For Capital City Weekly)

Chowder tip: If the seafood is smoked or salted, add seasonings after adding the fish, so that the soup is not too salty.

Next, place the crisp bacon pieces, onion, and celery in a large cast iron skillet or other large pot. Then add a few cups of chicken or fish broth to the pot and turn on the stove over low heat. Mixing chicken broth with water also works as a broth base. Add 1 or 2 cups of water to the saucepan until you have enough broth to cook the potatoes. For the potatoes, I use Yukon golden potatoes from the garden, but you can also buy them. I’ve used all kinds of potatoes, and they usually come in handy. Sometimes I substitute regular potatoes or sweet potatoes with regular potatoes. Cut about six to eight potatoes into small to medium squares and add them to the simmering saucepan. Simmer if you need time to make biscuits with your chowder, otherwise use low-medium heat and start cooking the potatoes.

Chowder tip: You can add two different types of potatoes in one batch to chowder.

Next, fry small pieces of halibut (or any type of seafood) in a few tablespoons of bacon fat. Remember that if your fish is already smoked and cooked, you can skip this step. You will add smoked or roasted salmon to the pot when the potatoes are almost done. I fry the seafood just enough to allow the bacon to thicken, and any seasonings I might add, such as garlic and pepper, seep into the meat. Cooking will finish in hot chowder. You don’t want to overcook your seafood. Crab and scallops can be overcooked easily, so add these types of seafood to your chowder after the potatoes and vegetables have simmered in the broth.

Chowder tip: Make seafood soup using two different types of seafood in one bowl.

As for the vegetables, I sneak them into my chowder. For kids or the awkward old, it’s all about creativity. Some suggestions are celery, broccoli, carrots, red peppers, and green onions. My older dad, who lives with me, hates vegetables, or so he says. After he declared how much he hates vegetables, I reminded him that we had just eaten scallop soup and it had carrots, zucchini, and turnips.

“Well, I like it,” he says. I remind him that we also had halibut pizza or halibut pizza with spinach and zucchini. He says he likes it too. So he probably loves vegetables, not just as a side dish.

Mitchell “Mickey” Prescott gives two thumbs up to soup with vegetables. (Vivien Faith Prescott/For Capital City Weekly)

You can add your vegetables in several stages. It is up to the chef. Fry them lightly with the bacon and onions or add them just before the potatoes are done. If you like firmer vegetables, add them after the potatoes are cooked.

Chowder tip: You can chop the vegetables small, large, or somewhere in between. Try making larger pieces of vegetables as you would deer stew.

It is important to season the chowder. Local seaweed goes well in seafood powder. Chop up red seaweed, sea lettuce, beach asparagus, or goose tongue, even the small, freshly flowered buds of parrotweed. I’ve added fiddle-bleach and Devil’s Club tips to my chowder.

Chowder tip: A few chopped fir tips add flavor to fish soup or dumplings.

Vegetables, seaweed, fir tips, and halibut ingredients to make chowder.  (Vivien Faith Prescott/For Capital City Weekly)

Vegetables, seaweed, fir tips, and halibut ingredients to make chowder. (Vivien Faith Prescott/For Capital City Weekly)

For extra flavor, I sometimes chop small zucchini walnuts and boil them until soft and then puree them in a blender. I mix the mash into the broth after the potatoes are cooked. After it is well mixed, add the coconut milk to the saucepan.

I use coconut milk for my tailors because canned milk is so rich, even though I grew up on homemade clam chowder made with evaporated milk. When making soup, don’t add milk until all the vegetables and potatoes have softened a bit. This prevents clotting or overcooking. I use 1 can of concentrated coconut milk, although I used mixed coconut milk/almond milk. Make sure the coconut or almond milk is unsweetened or not flavored with vanilla.

If you like thick chowder, which my dad does, make what’s called a roux, which is a paste. Use a small jar and fill it halfway with water, then take several forks of flour and mix them one fork at a time in the glass jar until you get a thick paste. Add the paste to the chowder after adding the milk, but before adding any dumplings. Stir until the chowder thickens slightly. Sometimes, I use cornstarch and water mixed in a jar to make a slurry to thicken my chowder.

This photo shows a bowl of smoked salmon soup.  (Vivien Faith Prescott/For Capital City Weekly)

This photo shows a bowl of smoked salmon soup. (Vivien Faith Prescott/For Capital City Weekly)

Finally, I usually make dumplings, biscuits, or pancakes to go with the chowder. You can also make fried bread. But if you don’t have time, bring out the pilot bread or a packet of salt. The dumplings are made from teaspoons of dough that are cut over a simmering soup and cooked uncovered for ten minutes, then covered to cook for another ten minutes. Sometimes I make baking powder biscuits. A simple cookie recipe can be brought to life by folding a handful of cranberries (low-cut cranberries) or blueberries into a cookie or pancake mix. Without added sugar. If you are going to make pancakes, there is a wide range of ideas. I make halibut corn soup with cornmeal pancakes. If you like spice, add cumin and red pepper flakes.

Finally, before serving the chowder, top the chowder with any grated cheese on hand, plus a little plain yogurt or sour cream.

Chowder tip: Chowder is often better on the second day. Any leftover soup can be thickened and folded into a crust to make a pot pie.

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