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Eric Akis: Chowder makes a festive West Coast winter meal

Hearty seafood dish filled with salmon, shrimp, clams, rockfsh and lingcod
Deluxe seafood chowder is rich with B.C. clams, shrimp, smoked salmon, rockfish and cod. ERIC AKIS

My son, his partner, my wife and I made plans to decorate our Christmas tree the other night and before we did, I decided to serve a meal. Since we’re on Vancouver Island, I wanted it to have West Coast flair and also be comforting; something suitable to enjoy on the very blustery day that is was.

My first thought was that it should contain B.C. seafood. And my second thought was that seafood always tastes wonderful in chowder, which we are all fans of, so I decided to make a pot of it.

Because it would act as the main course, I wanted it to be hearty and stocked with a nice mix of seafood. I headed to my local seafood store and selected items that caught my eye and they included fresh clams, shrimp, rockfish, lingcod and hot smoked salmon.

Hot smoked salmon, unlike silky cold smoked salmon or lox, is smoked at a higher temperature. It’s firmer in texture, but still moist and very flavourful and it gave my chowder a pleasing smokey taste that other recipes might use bacon to achieve.

When home, unpacking that fine seafood and starting to make the soup, I said to myself, this is going to be “deluxe” seafood chowder — what I called it when writing down the recipe to share with you.

To make it, the clams were steamed until they just opened. The meat was removed from the shells and chopped. The shrimp was then coarsely chopped and the fish cubed. Diced onions and celery were then cooked in butter, and flour, garlic and tarragon were mixed in, creating a roux that would thicken the chowder.

Fish stock, the clam steaming liquid and cubed potatoes were then added, and the chowder was simmered until the potatoes were tender. In went the seafood and the chowder was simmered awhile longer, until the raw fish was cooked and the shrimp, clams and smoked salmon were hot and delicious. Chopped dill was then stirred in and the chowder was ready.

The recipe makes about eight cups of chowder. Four very generous, about two cups each, main course servings, or six smaller, about one and a third cups each, servings. Any leftover chowder will freeze well.

We enjoyed the chowder with good bread and a green salad. It was a festive West Coast winter meal you could enjoy for lunch or dinner anytime during the holidays.

Deluxe Seafood Chowder

Hearty chowder thick with a deluxe mix of seafood you can ladle up for lunch or dinner and serve with sliced, buttered baguette or other good bread.

Preparation time: 40 minutes

Cooking time: about 30 minutes

Makes: four to six servings

1 pound fresh manila clams (see Eric’s options)

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup butter

3/4 cup finely diced onion

3/4 cup finely diced celery

2 large garlic cloves, minced

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp dried tarragon or thyme

3 3/4 cups fish or chicken stock (divided)

1 3/4 cups red-skinned potatoes, unpeeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

200 grams hand-peeled or other small cooked shrimp, patted dry and coarsely chopped

125 grams hot smoked salmon, any skin removed, cut into small cubes

150 gram rockfish fillet (also called Pacific snapper), cut into 1/2-inch cubes

150 gram lingcod or other cod fillet, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 cup half and half (10 per cent) cream

• salt and ground white pepper, to taste

2 Tbsp chopped fresh dill, or to taste

Rinse the clams in cold water. Inspect them and make sure the shells are all closed or close when squeezed. Discard any clams that don’t close.

Pour 1/2 cup water into a medium pot, set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Add the clams, cover and cook just until they open, about two minutes. Lift clams out of the pot and on to a plate. Strain the clam cooking liquid into a small bowl. When clams have cooled, remove the meat from the shells, set on a cutting board, coarsely chop and set in a second bowl. Strain any liquid on the plate the clams sat on into the bowl with the cooking liquid. Refrigerate chopped clams and cooking liquid until needed.

Melt butter in a large pot set over medium heat. (My pot was eight inches wide, and six inches tall.) Add the onion and celery and cook until tender, about five minutes. Add the flour, garlic and tarragon (or thyme), mix well, and cook one minute more. Slowly stir in one cup of the stock. When mixture is very thick, slowly stir in the rest of the stock.

Add the reserved clam cooking liquid and potatoes, bring the chowder to a gentle simmer, and simmer until the potatoes are just tender, about 10 to 12 minutes. Add the chopped clam meat, shrimp, smoked salmon, rockfish, cod and cream. Return chowder to a simmer, and simmer five minutes more, until the raw pieces of fish are cooked. Mix in the dill, taste and season the chowder with salt and pepper, and it ready to enjoy.

Eric’s options: You could make the chowder many hours before needed, quickly cool it by setting the pot in an ice water bath, and then refrigerate it until ready to reheat and serve. If you can’t find fresh clams, replace with one (142 gram) can of baby clams. Add the clams and their liquid to the chowder when mixing in the other seafood. You could also replace the fresh clams with one (284 gram) can of St. Jean’s Cannery ( butter clams, sold at some seafood stores and grocery stores. If you use them, chop the clams into smaller pieces, before adding them and the liquid in the can to the chowder. If you find this chowder too thick, simply thin with a little more stock or cream.

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Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.