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Chowder: the ultimate winter comfort food

Thick enough to stick to your ribs and warm enough to get you through the winter

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Photo by Bruce Murray/VisionFire Studios

Recipes Featured In This Article

Smoked-Salmon Chowder

A combination of smoked salmon and guanciale give this chowder a layer of depth and smokin...

It is for most Atlantic Canadians a birthright that has never lost its cultural identity: chowder. When Arctic winds whistle across the North Atlantic this common comfort food crosses all ranks with delicious local variations.

If you’re from Newfoundland then cod, particularly salt cod, is king and so you most definitely grew up with it in your chowder. Acadians from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia added dulse to add a rich umami flavour long before seaweed had its moment as an A-list ingredient. In P.E.I., chowder wouldn’t be chowder without the addition of oysters, while plump Digby scallops and chunks of lobster are customary in Nova Scotian kitchens. And for generations, home cooks in the Quebec’s Magdalen Islands prepared chaude aux palourdes with prized clams.

Recipes are passed down through generations, tweaked here and there for taste. Entire books are dedicated to making chowder; there’s a chowder trail of 60 restaurants in Nova Scotia, and there are chowder festivals and cook offs from Saint Andrews, N.B., to St. John’s, N.L., and in many small towns in between.

Chowder lovers across the region have their own tips to create the perfect bowl.

For third generation, Charlottetown lobster fisherman Andy McLeod the secret to flavourful chowder is a chunk of smoked ham. “It’s all in the curing process, which gives the chowder a real authentic depth the day after you make it,” he says. When McLeod starts talking about his chowder secrets and how young people can no longer make it, and you best have a large bowl of chowder in front of you because it could take a while.

McLeod says chowder should be thick and creamy and only made with white fish. “It can’t be fussy,” he says. “It’s a manly dish, with chunks of potatoes, onions and no skimping on the fish and seafood. It’s been made by the men in my family for generations. It’s the only time my wife allows me to be captain in the kitchen.”

Chef Mark Gabrieau, from Gabrieau’s Bistro in Antigonish, N.S., grew up in southern Ontario, and didn’t eat chowder growing up. But his immigrant parents from Normandy versed him in the delicacies of French seafood soups and stews from bouillabaisse to marmite dieppoise, a spicy fish stew. Gabrieau creates his thick and layered seafood chowder with a focus on local ingredients and seasonal seafood. His rule: No thickeners, only lots of fresh cream.

Bonita Hussey is a home cook and author of cooking blog bonitaskitchen.com based in Upper Island Cove, N.L. She says although chowder is made the same way across Newfoundland, its unique ingredients make it stand out. She suggests salt fat pork, salt or fresh cod, and always evaporated milk for the cream base.

While chowders and soups are often eaten after mid-day, chef Stephanie Ogilvie of the Black Sheep Restaurant in Halifax, says chowder is the perfect winter brunch meal. “Chowder is undeniably an East Coast tradition, so it makes a great addition to your weekend winter brunch. It’s a time to slow down relax and connect with friends and family,” she said. Ogilvie’s chowder features a delicate broth. Ingredients like black garlic, which imparts a sweet, earthy flavour; guanciale, an Italian cured meat which is prepared from pork jowl or cheeks; and Nova Scotia smoked salmon add a rich depth of flavour.

There really may be no better example of a food that defines the heart and soul of Atlantic Canada the way chowder does. Born out of rugged landscapes and raised in simplicity, it’s a bowl of comfort, community, and culture.

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