Corn chowder just happens in my kitchen this time every year. Following a large picnic that features corn salad, I’m left with a couple dozen corncobs and usually a few ears of unused corn. With my waste-not-want-not attitude toward food, I make corn broth from the cobs and use it as the base for the chowder. This year, I added a smoked pork hock to the corncobs to make a slightly smoky and rich soup base. In addition to wanting to clear my freezer for the newly made broth, I thought that the pork would complement the chowder’s bacon base and temper the incredible sweetness that results from the corn itself, and to some degree I was right. The amount of sugar in corn is astonishing. No wonder it has become the demon behind obesity in America.
Traditionally – and technically – chowder is considered a dish made with fish or shellfish and stewed with vegetables, and often in milk. The name actually comes from the French “chaudière,” with means “pot,” or “heated thing” since “chaud” means warm. While chowders are now prevalent on menus everywhere in America, they originate in New England and eastern Canada, places like New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. With access to fish from the sea, and staples such as salt pork, storage potatoes and onions from the land, they were all set to use their local bounty for nourishing and flavorful meals. Corn chowder is one widely accepted variation.
I learned to appreciate the ins and outs of the chowders of New England and elsewhere from Jasper White, who wrote a book called 50 Chowders and who runs the Summer Shack restaurant near Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I’ve been known to hang out with friends and family. He also wrote a book called Lobster at Home, so you can tell that he’s capable of taking a single idea and making a volume out of it. His idea of chowder is not a proscribed set of ingredients, but rather a method (my kind of chef). He encourages his readers just to “let it happen” in their kitchens, as it does in mine. One of the advantages of chowder is that it can be made ahead so it’s great for a party or for a weeknight meal if you’d thought ahead to make it on the weekend.
This is a beautiful chowder, as the combination of yellow-orange pepper, bicolor corn and turmeric creates a golden dish. I tinkered with his recipe of course, diminishing the amount of butter and cream and increasing the liquid.
Corn Chowder adapted from Jasper White, 50 Chowders
3-4 medium ears of corn (yielding 2 c kernels)
¼ lb slab bacon, but unto 1/3-inch dice
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium onion, cut into ½-inch dice
½ large red, orange or yellow bell pepper, but into ½-inch dice
1 large sprig of fresh thyme, leaves stripped from the stems
½ tsp ground cumin
1/8 tsp ground turmeric
¾-1 lb all-purpose potatoes (I like Yukon gold), peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
3½ c corn broth or chicken stock, preferably homemade
Kosher or sea salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
2 tsp cornstarch
½ c heavy cream
2 tbsp thinly sliced scallions or chopped chives
Husk the corn and cut away the kernels, scraping down the cob to save the milky juice.
Heat a large heavy pot over low heat and add the diced bacon, cooking it on low heat until it has rendered about 1tablespoon of fat. Turn up the heat a little to allow the bacon to crisp.
Add the butter, onion, bell pepper, thyme, cumin and turmeric and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender but not browned, about 8 minutes.
Add the corn kernels, potatoes and liquid and turn up the heat. Cover the pot and allow the mixture to boil vigorously for about 8 minutes. Check for doneness and crush some of the potatoes against the side of the pot to thicken the chowder. The corn and potatoes should retain their shape, so don’t overcook them.
Reduce the heat slightly and season with salt and pepper. Stir the cornstarch into 2 tbsp of water until smooth. Add gradually to the chowder and let cook for a few minutes, allowing the mixture to return to a boil.
Turn the heat to low and add the cream. Do not allow the chowder to boil after adding the cream or it will curdle.
Serve within an hour or let it cool and refrigerate it for another day.
Adjust the seasonings if necessary and garnish with the scallions or chives.
Makes about 7 cups, serving 3-4 for a main course, or 6-8 as a first course.