This fish chowder, if it could talk, would have a long story to tell about a very short trip I was on that ended in minutes with a very quick fall.
This soup and I met on a rainy Alaskan night. There were no walks on the beach but we did get caught on the rain. The piña coladas were on an entirely different continent and man oh man, how I wished I had champagne to kill the pain. But this soup from Cordova, Alaska’s local Fishwives, and it’s subtle Thai-inspired flavors saved me instead.
I’ve been holding onto this recipe and the story that goes along with it to share until the chill hit my bones. Finally, after what seems like an eternal season of raking fall’s leaves and mild weathered evening walks, the frigid temps are settling in and so here it is.
Cordova, Alaska is home to the watershed that feeds the famed Copper River Salmon that are flown in fresh to my local Whole Foods each summer after being fished by experienced and often times lifelong fishermen, fisherwomen and their children. It’s a family thing. You could say it’s in their blood.
I was invited on a 5-day trip to Cordova by Copper River Salmon and I was stoked. I was going to go fishing, I was going to see the wild frontier, I was going to see glaciers calving huge chunks of ice into the sea. It was going to be a trip to remember.
My 30 minute flight from Anchorage over Cordova’s cerulean blue water looked more like the Caribbean with it’s striking contrast against the deep green covered mountains and white fluffed clouds. I couldn’t even tell where the sky and water met. In my buckled in window seat, it was the expansive sea to my right, and across the aisle on my left were deep crevasses of mountains that reached to the sky and we flew right next to, so close you could almost touch them.
Tip: If you’re flying into Cordova, get a window seat on the left side of the plane and have your iPhone ready for plenty of snapping of pics.
Cordova is a small, quaint town. It’s exactly what you’d think an Alaskan fishing town would be like. The harbor is packed with fishing boats, the pharmacy resides inside the Radio Shack, and everyone wears rubber wellies (except me in sandals and running shoes) among the amazingly healthy and thick spruce and cedars even in July.
I felt like I’d walked into an episode of Northern Exposure.
It’s that sort of place where you romanticize moving to, to get out of the rat race and slow down. Where folks talk about salmon-berry picking outside of Orca Adventure Lodge (yes, salmon berries are a real thing!) and drivers give a friendly nod and finger wave when traveling down the town’s single road that starts at one end of town and ends one hour later where we met the boat that took us to the 5-story high Childs Glacier and the Million Dollar Bridge that bridges both sides of the Copper River.
Copper River salmon use the river as a migratory path for reproducing some of the world’s tastiest salmon. Fish can travel 300 miles from the ocean up the river in 6-7 weeks. Then, the Copper River Delta glaciers feed the fish swimming into the ocean and the awaiting fisherman who try to catch them before they swim back upstream. Loaded with a layer of fat so they can make the swim is what makes them buttery in flavor and high levels of omega 3 fatty acids.
And that’s why Copper River salmon makes one damn fine chowder.
It takes a watershed to raise a salmon, will all of it’s tributaries and small rivers that lead into the big rivers and eventually the ocean where the salmon are fished. Unbelievably, over 1 million fish made up of 56 different stocks of sockeye salmon made the migration for reproduction just this year, making the 26,000 square miles of Alaska’s waterways—the size of West Virginia—the producer of over 50% of the world’s salmon.
The non-profit Copper River Watershed Project works with the habitat protection of the Copper River Delta and the local fishermen who are governed and monitored by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Fish and Wildlife technicians like Shane Shepherd spend the fishing season months in a shack the size of a backyard storage shed for 8 hours a day, 24 hours a day counting the fish that swim upstream to spawn with highly developed sonar tracking systems and good old fashioned counters.
These are they guys that determine when the fishermen can fish based on a combination of technology and tenacity. They say how many fish can be pulled from the sea.
And everyone makes it work together to make the whole process very focused on sustainability.
photo: A Thought for Food
And that is where this story takes a twist.
After meeting and learning from a handful of fishermen and seeing their boats firsthand on the docks of Cordova, we began the retreat back to dry land and head to the evening’s festivities of a potluck we were to join with a group of Cordova women called the Fisherwives.
And that’s when I turned from the boat and tripped on a gill net being repaired by a fisherman. I didn’t see it coming and didn’t feel it happening until I was splat, full force, flat down on the dock. I saved my iPhone in my right hand, but my left wrist was broken, along with the radial head of my right elbow and a fracture in my knee cap.
My trip came to an end after just 24 hours in Cordova. But not before a trip to the very competent and kind Cordova Medical Center who took A+ care of me and my lameness and determined it best for me to head back home to Utah for surgery to repair my broken wrist.
I thought I might be able to make it to the potluck dinner being put on by local foodie Mikal Berry, the proprietor and local’s favorite behind the Cordova food truck called, yep, Fishwives. Hey, Cordova has a food truck! So sweet Blair, my helpful PR rep who shepherded me to the ER, agreed to give it a go and in then end I couldn’t get out of her truck but she ran inside and got me something to take back to the lodge.
With the lodge’s restaurant closed and my inability to move much, having a bowl of Mikal’s Fish Chowder, room temperature and at about 2 a.m. after my first pain-killer enhanced nap, made me very, very happy.
It was the best chowder I’d ever eaten. And at first I couldn’t figure out why. But then I had an ah-ha moment. Even in pain I was disecting my food. I’m surprised I didn’t Instagram it.
Coconut milk. And a taste of lemongrass mingling with chunks of potato and salmon.
It was lush. It was thick. It was exactly what the doctor ordered and the best way—if I had to—end my 1-day stay in Alaska.
Thank you Mikal for sharing this recipe with me, so I can share it here today. And thank you Nelly and Blair and Copper River Salmon for making my trip one I’ll never forget.
- ¼ cup butter
- ½ cup all purpose flour
- ¼ pound thick bacon, diced
- 1 yellow onion, roughly chopped
- ½ head of garlic, finely dices or pressed
- 1 3-inch finger of ginger, peeled and diced
- 2 bay leaves
- Galanagal to taste
- Cayenne pepper to taste
- 2 stalks celery, sliced
- 2 carrots, peeled and sliced
- 4-8 ounces white wine
- 5-6 red potatoes, unpeeled and roughly chopped
- 3 cups vegetable, chicken or fish stock
- 2 stalks lemon grass, cleaned and smashed
- 2 kaffir lime leaves or 1 heaping teaspoon lime zest
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 1½ cups whole milk
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 2 15-ounce cans coconut milk
- 1 pound raw Copper River salmon, skinned and shredded or rustically cut
- Cilantro leaves and red jalapeño for garnish
- In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium high heat. Whisk in the flour and cook for 3 minutes, whisking continually, or until the flour browns lightly and smells nutty. Remove from the heat and set aside.
- Slowly cook the bacon in a heavy stockpot over medium heat until the bacon fat is rendered and the bacon begins to crisp. Add the onion, garlic, ginger, bay leaves, galangal and cayenne pepper. Then add in the carrots and celery, stir and sauté until the vegetables become soft.
- Stir in the wine and cook until the wine has reduced and absorbed into the veggies. Add the potatoes and sauté for 3-4 minutes. Add the stock, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves or zest, milk and the cream.
- Raise to medium high heat and bring mixture to a low boil. Stir in the roux and cook until the mixture thickens, about 5-8 minutes. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
- You can cool at this point and save for later, or add the coconut milk and any extra seasonings to taste.
- When the soup is hot and creamy, add the chopped fish and simmer for a few minutes until the fish is just done and still tender.
My trip was provided by Copper River Salmon. As always, thank you for reading and for supporting companies I partner with, which allows me to create more unique content and recipes for you. All opinions are always my own.
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