Not your everyday ingredient, beluga whale has a firm, slightly crunchy texture and delicious flavor making it a perfect ingredient in traditional seafood chowders.
When a friend who is on a whaling crew recently offered us a few pounds of fresh beluga, we jumped at the opportunity to work with what for us is a new ingredient. The beluga chowders we’d sampled till this point had all started with beluga being added to canned clam chowder. We couldn’t wait to try beluga with our own recipe. The result was a rich, creamy, flavorful chowder.
We view all seafood through the lens of sustainability. Although commercial whaling and environmental factors have endangered a few of the world’s 29 separate beluga populations, in Arctic Alaska’s Chukchi Sea the species is abundant and appears to be unaffected by the relatively few numbers harvested for subsistence by Inupiat hunters. Typical belugas range in size from about 10 to 18 feet long and weigh between half a ton and two tons. Salmon and cod are among their preferred prey, but they feed opportunistically on a long list of other sea creatures. Interestingly, beluga’s closest relatives are narwhales.
Beluga soups and chowders are very popular among Eskimos. The skin and a little bit of the attached blubber is cut into slices about 1/16 – 1/4 inch thick (.25 – .5 cm) and about 1/2 – 1 inch in width and length. We cut ours thin – about 1/6 inch. Chunks this size become tender after about 10 minutes of simmering, with the skin retaining just the right amount of subtle crunch to it – a bit like conch or whelk. Using our favorite clam chowder recipe as a base, our beluga chowder had guests mopping their bowls with fresh-baked bread and asking for more. See recipe below.
Sweet corn, potatoes, bacon, butter, olive oil, sautéed onions, garlic, salt and pepper are a great base for all kinds of seafood chowder recipes. After that, whether the featured ingredient is razor clams, beluga whale or the assorted catch of the day is up to you. A little tarragon is nice, too.
Beluga and Clam Chowder
- 2 pounds beluga whale (skin with blubber), cut into slices 1/16 inch thick and abut 1 inch x 3/4 inch. Each piece should have skin plus about 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch of blubber attached.
- 1 pound razor clams or other clams, chopped coarse (This is the weight of clams after they have been drained. But save and set aside their juice.)
- clam juice you’ve set aside. The more, the better.
- 4 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold or yellow potatoes. (These cook up creamier than than Russets)
- 2 sweet onions, chopped coarse
- 1/2 pound bacon, cut into small pieces
- 4 cups milk
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 6 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
- 1 1/2 pound sweet corn (optional)
- 1/2 cup flour
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons sea salt
- 1/2 tablespoon Italian seasoning (The Spice Hunter’s Italian blend is excellent)
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper (either black or rainbow)
- 1 teaspoon dry tarragon, crushed (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (optional)
- 6 – 8 very thin slices of lemon
- Place sliced beluga in a pot. Add just enough water or clam juice to cover. Add a little salt. Over high heat, bring to a boil then reduce to simmer. Cook till beluga is tender (skin is easily pierced by a fork) but still a bit crunchy. About 10 minutes. Use a colander and a bowl to drain water, but keep water. Set beluga aside.
- Fry bacon pieces till tender. Do not crisp. Drain the grease and set bacon aside.
- Wash potatoes and remove any eyes, but do not remove the skins. Cut into ½ inch cubes and place in a large bowl. Cover with cold water, rinse and drain.
- Return water used for cooking beluga to pot. Add potatoes. If necessary, add additional water or clam juice to cover potatoes. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer till potatoes are tender.
- Meanwhile, place olive oil in a large skillet and heat over medium heat. Add onions, flour and seasoning (optional). Reduce heat and stir frequently for about five minutes until onions begin to turn translucent. Add garlic and bacon and stir again, cooking for about 1 minute.
- Add onion mixture, milk, cream, beluga, cream, salt and pepper to potatoes and water. Heat thoroughly, but do not boil.
Serve piping hot with sourdough bread.
See also: Alaska Razor Clam Chowder