Friday, August 22, 2014

Smoked Salmon Chowder

by Sheila Connolly

I love to talk about Irish food. And I happen to be in Ireland at the moment, making the most of local food.

Smoked Salmon Chowder

Irish food keeps evolving, and quickly. I first visited Ireland in 1998, with my husband and daughter. With just my daughter in 1999. In 2001, with a friend I’d met online because we both had ancestors who lived in a tiny townland in County Carlow. There was a pause of a few years, and then I started going back in 2011, and 2012, and twice in 2013, and now again in 2014. The trips began long before I even thought of writing, but once I started writing, I knew I had to write about Ireland, and in particular, County Cork, where my grandfather was born.

Looking back on those first few trips, I have trouble remembering any noteworthy meals, either in Dublin or out in the country (unless you count the French fry sandwich in Carlow). It was almost as though the Irish were trying to live up to their own reputation for lousy food: watery potatoes, mushy carrots, soggy cabbage and grey meat. I ate my share of it, because there weren’t a lot of choices.

But things started changing. In an Irish paper just this month, I read that West Cork is now “a byword for good food.” The writer went on to say, “anyone who doubts that West Cork is now driving the food revolution begun in Ballymaloe [site of the Ballymaloe Cookery School, also in Cork] should visit the farmers’ market in Skibbereen any Saturday morning.”

I wrote about that famers’ market after I visited last November. Believe me, this year I’ll be there, shopping bag in hand.

This year I’m going back to Ireland (unexpectedly) because the pub that I write about—that used to be called Connolly’s—is reopening this month, after it went dark several years ago, and I want to be there. Having decided that I was going, I started making a list of places I wanted to visit or revisit, and the farmers’ market was near the top of that list (right after Connolly’s and the Drombeg Stone Circle). I’m actually staying in Skibbereen this time, and can walk to the farmers’ market. And to the amazing grocery store, where last year I bought wild game. Funny—sounds like I’m flying a couple of thousand miles just to eat, doesn’t it?

But it’s not happening only in the big town (Skibbereen’s population is about 2,700), but in the smaller villages as well. There’s Leap, which now has a bistro (that opened last year) with good food. There’s tiny Union Hall (2006 population, 192, although there are plenty of summer holiday visitors), which has its own fishing operation and a fishmonger with fresh fish that make me want to weep; and a place down the road that makes its own smoked salmon; and a new distillery that makes Irish whiskey.

Yes, West Cork has discovered food--fresh, local, and outstanding. They even have a food festival (in September, alas, so I will miss it). So rather than find a cute B&B (since I’m traveling without family and friends this time), I’ve rented a small one-bedroom place so I could have a kitchen and take advantage of some of this fabulous fresh food.

And lest you think that this town has gone food-mad merely as a tourist gimmick, as a central town in the region Skibbereen has been holding weekly markets for well over a century—year round. Live chickens and ducks. Apple trees. “Tat” dealers (sort of like a flea market table). And one man who carves magic wands from bog oak. Yes, I have one.

This recipe is a nod to the Union Hall Smoked Fish Company that I hope to have explored fully by the time you read this. (Wonder how much I can fit into my carry-on?) The recipe is derived from one I found in Margaret Johnson’s The New Irish Table, into which I inserted more than a dozen sticky notes the first time I read it. Yum!

Smoked Salmon Chowder

3 Tblsp unsalted butter
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
4 oz. white mushrooms, chopped
2 Tblsp flat-leaf parsley, chopped
4 oz. smoked salmon, chopped
Ground white pepper to taste
1/4 cup flour
2 cups fish stock or bottled clam juice
1/2 cup cream or half-and-half
Sour cream and a few fresh dill sprigs for garnish

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the chopped onion, garlic, mushrooms and parsley. Cook for 2-3 minutes until tender. Add the salmon and the pepper and sauté for another two minutes, until the salmon is heated through.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the flour. Return to the burner  and cook over low heat, stirring (this “cooks” the flour). Gradually add the fish stock or clam juice, stirring continuously until the flour is incorporated. Return to medium heat and bring to a boil, then quickly reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 2-3 minutes, until the mixture thickens. Stir in the cream.

Ladle the soup into bowls. Add a spoonful of sour cream or crème fraiche and top with a dill sprig.

It's a fairly quick recipe (once you get done chopping everything!), and I have a suspicion that this soup might be good cold as well.


And since I'm talking about Ireland, here's a sneak peek at the cover for the next County Cork Mystery, An Early Wake (coming February 2015)


  1. Just an add-on: when I stopped in at the fish shop seen above, the same man was there. I'd met him exactly once, last year, but he greeted me with "you're the author, right?"

    1. That's so exciting! He remembered you!

    2. LOL - "you're the author, right..." - music to the ears. :)

  2. What a lovely experience Sheila, next time bring us along! The new cover is wonderful...

  3. I love the new cover, too, Sheila. One of my friends was telling me about stone circles in England, so I'm eager to hear about the one you visited. This soup sounds delicious. Love that it cooks so fast!

  4. Smoked salmon is one of my very favorite foods--so I'm copying down this recipe.

  5. What a wonderful update on this year's County Cork research, Sheila. With the re-opening of (the former) Connolly's pub and the new awareness and excitement over local foods, it's good news all around.

    I'll be trying your recipe soon. Looking forward to it. Marc and I love fish chowders, but we've never tried smoked salmon chowder. (Of course, we wish we could sample it with the fresh, local version you're enjoying there now!) Thx for sharing and have a safe trip back.

    ~ Cleo

    1. This recipe is ridiculously easy--oh, and I just happened to bring some smoked salmon back with me.

      Oddly enough, on Friday last I was talking to Sam McNicholl, who is the driving force behind the reopening, and his Australian girlfriend, and they said the were thinking of adding a working kitchen and turning out a limited menu using local products.Fellow foodies! I volunteered to come work in the kitchen with them. They're still wrestling with obtaining the limited liquor license for the music side, but the place looks good now.

  6. I love being along on this trip, Sheila, although I am forty shades of green with jealousy.