To quote Caven on F/V Sword, the Southeast Alaska chinook opening in July of 2014 was epic. Fishermen who had been trolling for salmon in Alaska for 50 years said that the opening we just completed was the best one of their careers, one for the books. We were lucky to be there and lucky to be on the fish. It doesn’t always happen that way. We weren’t on the fish in 2015 but that is another story for another post…back to July 2014.
After bucking and bashing into the weather for 17 hours while coming in from the Fairweather Grounds, we found ourselves rafted up to the dock three boats deep in the tiny, remote village of Elfin Cove, Alaska. You can only reach Elfin Cove by floatplane or boat. Steep mountains rise up on all sides of the harbor. The homes and other buildings of Elfin Cove are pressed up against the base of the mountains. There are no roads in the village, only boardwalks that ring the harbor and connect the village’s buildings to the docks.
We were all exhausted and beaten from the ‘epic’ fishing and intense weather that found the fleet on the last day of the July chinook opening. Once in port, it rained sideways and blew for three days but no one cared. Everyone was secure at the dock and sleep in copious amounts was the only thing anyone craved.
Once sleep depraved captains and crews were rested it was time to celebrate a successful start of the summer troll season in Alaska. Sharing a meal with others during fishing season is a rare treat as we are often, quite literally, ships that pass in the night. A pot of fish chowder was made to feed the crews from five fishing boats who were gathered on the back deck of Duna, under the awning and out of the rain. We made the chowder, they brought the beer.
We often eat chowder and fish soups on the boat. A hot bowl of soup warms your hands as you hold it, fills your belly and can be eaten when you have time. I don’t usually write down recipes as what I have on board to cook with is what goes into dinner. You improvise a lot of the time. That day in Elfin Cove Megan from F/V Island Star asked me to teach her how to make chowder so we actually measured and recorded all the ingredients as they were added to the pot. The resulting recipe is below.
It’s now October of 2015, a year and some months from when Megan and I made the Duna Chowder in Elfin Cove. We recently had chowder at our house in Port Townsend with our friends from F/V Caribou – Joe, April and their boy Ocean. The Caribous, as we call them, were there for the original Duna chowder. As we sat around the kitchen table, far away from the roll of the sea, memories and stories floated up from our steamy bowls with each spoonful of chowder. We are lucky that so many from our Alaska fishing community are home-ported in Washington and can gather with us while we are land locked in the off seasons from fishing.
Duna Chowder, the recipe that fed the crews from 5 fishing boats or 12 hungry people:
½ cup bacon, chopped
3 ½ cups onion, diced
1 ¾ cups celery, diced
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
4 bay leaves
2 teaspoon dill & thyme, dry is fine
2 cups carrots, cut into ½ inch pieces
3 – 4 quarts fish stock
3 – 4 cups red skin potatoes or other thin skin spud, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 can corn, drained
1 pint heavy cream or 2 cans evaporated milk
3 – 4 pounds salmon, skinned and cut into 1” cubes
¼ cup dried wakame, optional
Salt and Pepper to taste
A few notes before you start:
- The recipe calls for salmon but you can use halibut, cod, or rockfish
- If you don’t have fish stock a quick substitute can be made by combining 1 tablespoon of Vietnamese fish sauce for each cup of water.
- For thicker chowder, make a flour or corn starch slurry and stir in after adding the milk. Thicken to your preference.
- Dried wakame (a type of seaweed) adds a nice dose of umami to the chowder. I crush the dried wakame a bit before adding it so the rehydrated pieces are smaller.
- You can make this chowder a day ahead of time if you wish. Stop just before you add the fish then cool and refrigerate the chowder. One hour before you wish to serve the chowder, gently heat it back up to a steamy simmer and add the fish raw fish and seaweed. Follow the recipe from that point onwards.
In a large stockpot, sauté the bacon until the fat is rendered but the meat is not too crispy.
Add the onion & celery to the bacon, stirring occasionally so nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan. Sauté until the vegetables are just soft, about 5 minutes.
Add spices, stirring occasionally until fragrant, 2-3 minutes.
Now add the carrots and stock, cooking until carrots soften slightly. Scrape the bottom of the pot to loosen any bacon or vegetable bits.
Next add spuds, corn and cream or evaporated milk. Simmer until the spuds are just slightly soft. Remember to stir so nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot.
Now is the time to add a slurry of thickener if you plan to use it. Stir until broth thickens. Add more or less slurry to thicken the broth to your liking.
Once the broth is steaming hot but not boiling add fish and dried wakame. Stir once so all the fish submerged and wakami is evenly distributed throughout the chowder. Simmer until fish is just cooked. Stir occasionally.
Remember the fish will continue to cook in hot broth once the pot is off the stove. Be careful not to over cook the fish or it will get tough.
That’s it! Serve with lots of bread or crackers, cold beer and call it dinner.