Phyllis’s Cafe & Salmon Bake, Anchorage (photo Grace Anderson Minube.co.uk).

It may lack the spiritual depth of the quest for the historical Jesus, but here’s an interim report on my quest for a recipe for Alaska-style salmon chowder that’s easy on the lactose and won’t send my cholesterol count skyrocketing. It follows up on a chat with my new cardiologist, who delicately suggested it’s time to get more get more fish in my diet, cut way back on red meat and dairy, and take better care of myself in general.

So I guess maybe it belongs in a spirituality blog after all.

I’m sure I had clam chowder when I was growing up — probably straight out of a Campbell’s Soup can — but I never knew you could make the stuff with other fish until Debi wrote training manuals for the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault 10 and 15 years ago. They’d fly her up to Anchorage a couple of times a year to roll out a new curriculum, and I’d tag along when my teaching schedule permitted.

That’s when I discovered salmon chowder.

ANDVSA meetings aren’t exactly high-dollar events held at swanky convention centers, and Debi and I weren’t exactly high-rollers anyway, so we discovered some nice little seafood restaurants in downtown Anchorage. One was Phyllis’s Cafe and Salmon Bake, pictured above, on D Street. It’s gone out of business now, but it was a funky little place. just around the corner from the indoor 5th Avenue shopping mall. It was nice and cozy in the dining room when the weather was blustery outside, and it had a semi-enclosed outdoor patio where you could catch the afternoon sun on a nice spring day in May and order fish and chips with fresh halibut … or their signature salmon chowder. It was lovely.

Phyllis’s chowder was rich. It was creamy; and, if I remember correctly, it came served in a sourdough bread bowl. You had to be careful not to overdo it — we were visiting Alaska about the same time I began to suspect I was starting to be lactose intolerant — but it was delicious.

I loved everything about Alaska. We’d fly up for Debi’s conferences, which were usually held at a BP conference center in midtown Anchorage, not far from the UAA campus, and we’d stay a few days extra looking around. I was teaching a Native American cultural studies course at the time, so I was interested in the Russian Orthodox church’s role in creating an Alaska creole culture that blended Russian, Siberian, Aleut and Tlingit Indian elements.

Debi and I can be bookworms, and she indulges my nerdish historical interests up to a point. So we haunted bookstores and visited a Dena’ina Athabascan village north of town, as well as a Russian Orthodox museum in downtown Anchorage where I picked up a CD of an akathist, or liturgical hymn, to Our Lady of Sitka and several books.

Later I wrote it up, in an article for our campus literary magazine titled “Alaskan Liturgical Hymns, Our Lady of Sitka and the ‘Presence of the Holy’ in Cross-town Traffic” (I was the de facto editor, publisher and production manager, so it was another indulgence of my inner cultural history nerd). I remember a time we went out to dinner with a woman from a local DV shelter, and Debi said she’d like to try the Native cuisine.

“Oh, be careful what you ask for,” replied the woman from Anchorage.

She went on to describe Eskimo ice cream, a combination of blueberries and seal oil or reindeer fat (ingredients may vary). We didn’t try any of that, but we did sample Inuit smoked salmon and muktuk, or preserved whale blubber, when an ANDVISA member brought snacks to a breakout session that her brother had brought down from the North Slope. The muktuk had, well, let’s call it an interesting beefy flavor, and the salmon was delicious!

Anyway, salmon got to be one of the key attractions of our visits to Alaska.

Since we’re not exactly known for seafood in central Illinois (catfish, yes, but not salmon and certainly not chowders), I wondered if we might be able to recreate a toned-down version of Phyllis’ chowder at home. But I never got around to it at the time.

The recipes

Fast-forward 15 years or so, to this month’s visit with the cardiologist at Prairie Cardiovascular. Coming on top of a global pandemic and my own medical adventures last fall, let’s just say I was ready to pay attention when the conversation turned to body-mass index, cholesterol levels, diet, exercise and further testing. It was time to think harder about what Debi euphemistically calls a “healthy eating plan.”

And that’s when I remembered the salmon chowder in Alaska.

So I’ve been looking up salmon recipes. I learned quite a bit I didn’t know before about chowder. Apparently chowder originated in New England and the French-speaking parts of Canada. According to Wikipedia, the word may come from the French chaudron, a cooking pot, or a regional fish stew called chaudrée. It usually consists of seafood, especially clams, and potatoes in a milk or cream broth. There are regional variations on the Atlantic coast, the Pacific Northwest and New Zealand, where the local term is pipi. (Quit laughing — it’s a Maori word for a type of clam.) One variation, confusingly known as Manhattan chowder (since it isn’t really from Manhattan), uses a tomato soup base instead of milk.

In Alaska, you can find clam chowder, but halibut and salmon — especially salmon — are more common. Along with reindeer sausage (try not to think of poor Rudolph), they’re signature dishes.

Google keywords Alaska salmon chowder, and you’ll find several recipes online. Most of them of them add corn, although they’ll often say it’s optional. I’m glad they do. When I try to adapt a recipe to cooking at home, my style is to look at three or four recipes and combine details from each. One adaptation I intend to make is to leave out the corn. They didn’t have it at Phyllis’s, and I don’t want to mess with a winning combination.

Several of the recipes caught my eye. One, on the Foodies Terminal website at https://foodiesterminal.com/alaskan-salmon-chowder/, featured an “Alaskan Salmon Chowder” and a link to a “Healthy Salmon Chowder Recipe Video.” Definitely worth another look, especially considering my chat with the doc at Prairie Cardiovascular! Also beguiling was a Manhattan salmon chowder recipe on the Healthy Oceans Too website at https://stories.msc.org/en-us/healthy-oceans-cookbook/manhattan-salmon-chowder/#section-TOP-OWsCEuiy0n by Carlie Saint-Laurent Beaucejour, a dietician who is also interested in sustainable oceans.

I don’t know how common Manhattan style chowder is in Alaska (Wikipedia suggests it’s more likely from Rhode Island than Manhattan anyway). But another little restaurant in Anchorage that I liked — also closed now, sadly — was the Alaska Salmon Chowder House in a little commercial strip on 4th Avenue. That’s where I first tried the Manhattan style of salmon chowder.

Alaska Salmon Chowder House (photo Foursquare City Guide)

But the best recipe of all, at least for my purposes, is put up by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute of Juneau.

The Marketing Institute calls it their Quick Alaska Salmon Chowder, and it uses canned salmon, frozen hash brown potatoes, among other ingredients, and — best of all! — three cups of skim milk.

Skim milk! Just what the doctor ordered.

Plus onion, thyme (or dillweed) and lemon pepper, as well as some things like corn and cooking sherry I can do without. You can check out the recipe here:

Other links:

[Published March 29, 2022]

2 thoughts on “Salmon chowder recipes bring back memories of Alaska, as I try to come up with a ‘healthy eating plan’

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