It is summer, and corn is coming into season. I am not ashamed to admit that I have a corn problem: When I see corn, I have to buy it. I buy a dozen ears, even if I have no idea what to do with them. And though I do love corn on the cob, I have my limits. Sometimes, too, corn deserves to be more than a side dish, slathered with butter, gnawed in and flossed out. Corn deserves a little love.
And so, today, we are going to make corn chowder. We are going to take our time about it. Corn chowder is a simple thing, which means that it deserves to be made carefully, thoughtfully, attentively, because it has no ornament to distract the senses, no frivolity or luxury to excite the mind. Simple food can be only what it is, and so it must be all that it is and should be, else it is not worth eating.
We will make enough to serve eight, because, presumably, we can find some friends to help us eat it. (If not, there’s always lunch.)
Begin with corn. Freshly bought, freshly picked if humanly possible — at a late-afternoon midweek farmers’ market the corn will have been picked that morning, not the previous afternoon — certainly unhusked. Corn is bone and muscle and flesh of a corn chowder, and it must have the flavor to carry such a burden, but corn begins as soon as it is picked to grow starchy and stale. As soon as we are born we begin to die, no? Modern supersweet hybrid corn is better preserved but, sadly, less flavorful, much like modern supersweet hybrid humans. In your dreams you may harvest an armful of Goldan Bantam from a field behind your house, singing hymns of praise while you jog to the kitchen; waking we can only lament the passing of that glorious breed.
You may lament among yourselves.
Finished? Good. Now, to serve eight people you will want a dozen ears. If you are buying your corn from a farmers’ market, for heaven’s sake do not make an ass of yourself by peeling back husks to find an ear untouched by caterpillars. The caterpillars, too, are God’s creatures, and they too deserve a meal before they drop with the end of the ear into your compost. Simply look and feel. The husk should be green and not dry at the edges, the silk still soft; the ears should feel full and firm, like anything else ripe and juicy: use your imagination. Just don’t molest it before you’ve committed to making it dinner.
Once you have retreated to the privacy of your own kitchen, take the first ear gently but firmly in hand and peel back a single layer of husk. Then another, and another, one at a time, slowly. Relish the anticipation. Then grow bored with this nonsense and rip the rest off before you embarrass yourself. The remaining ears will go more quickly if you first lop off the end of each ear with a chef’s knife — if you’re squeamish, that should take care of any caterpillars — and then pull the husks off half at a time. Pull off as much silk as you can. Rinse the ears briefly, but don’t scrub them. A few strands of silk won’t hurt you, and if the corn emerging from all that husk and silk is dirty that it needs scrubbing, something has gone dangerously wrong with it. (For that matter, something has gone dangerously wrong with a culture that manufactures special brushes for the purpose of scrubbing corn.)
What we want to do now is to remove the kernels from the cobs. Give the ear a sturdy bottom by snapping off any stem still attached to the cob, then stand it on a cutting board, holding it firmly at the top, and slice the kernels off with your chef’s knife, one side at a time, rotating as you go. Slice down, away from your fingers. Don’t worry if you miss some: before you set the naked cob aside, turn the knife around and use the back of the knife to scrape down the cob and release the milk and pulp from the remaining bits of kernel. Scrape all this mess, the corn and pulp and milk, into a bowl and set it aside.
But wait — those cobs have more flavor yet to give! Place them in your stock pot and barely cover them with cool water. Add a chopped carrot and a rib of celery, if you have one, and a few bay leaves. Bring the pot to a boil and let it simmer while you carry on with your work. By the time your chowder needs liquid, those bare cobs will have made stock.
You could use chicken stock, yes, but why muddy the delicate sweetness of the corn? A bit of pork is all that’s called for. A half-pound of the best bacon, meaty, thick-sliced, from a hog that knew sunshine and summer breeze, that rooted in mud and ate someone’s scraps and leftovers (we will be polite and refrain from calling it garbage) — from a hog that could properly be called a hog, in other words, whose creator would recognize as his creation, and which could thus produce what a respectable carnivore would recognize as bacon. A half-pound of bacon is not much for eight people, nor will it break your budget to buy the good stuff; there is no excuse for turning frugality into parsimony. Dice up the bacon — it’s easier to dice it first than to fry it in slices and crumble it, and it cooks more evenly — and slowly brown it in the pot you intend to use for your chowder. Don’t be silly and use a separate pan; you’ll only lose the flavor of the toasty pan-scrapings and give yourself more work in cleaning up.
While the aroma of bacon fills your kitchen, wafts through the open window and down the street and tempts your vegetarian neighbors to backslide, chop a couple of onions. Plain yellow onions will do — are best, in fact; a good frying in bacon fat will temper their sulfury bite but turn a Vidalia to pap, tempting though sweet onions may be in June.
Push the bacon around in the pot a bit. This doesn’t accomplish much as far as the bacon is concerned, but it makes you feel useful.
When the bacon is lightly brown and crisp, remove it from the pot and drain it on paper towels — not to get rid of excess fat but simply to keep it crisp. We’ll want that crispness later as a foil for the creamy richness of the soup. Leave the fat in the pot, add the onion, and fry that slowly until it is soft and just beginning to brown. We’re not making caramelized onions; this isn’t French onion soup. But let us coax a bit more of Maillard’s magic from our humble ingredients.
Yes: leave the fat in the pot. If your bacon was properly meaty you should not have more than a third of a cup or so of fat, which for eight people leaves only a couple of teaspoons to lubricate a bowl of soup. If you simply cannot stand the sight of so much fat in your soup pot, pour some off, but save it to use for some other purpose. To throw good food and good flavor in the trash would be foolish, but that is a minor point. A creature sufficiently intelligent to recognize his own reflection in a mirror has given his life that we may be nourished, and he deserves our gratitude and our respect: we must eat all of him that we take. Anything less would be, and I do not use this term lightly, a sin. Dump in your onions and say a prayer of thanks for the pig.
Inhale deeply the fragrant incense of your kitchen.
Dice some potatoes. How many? Enough to yield the same volume, more or less, of diced potatoes as of corn. Red or white or yellow are fine, depending on what you have in your kitchen or what looks good at your market or what you or your favorite farmer has harvested this week. Avoid anything too starchy unless you want something that looks like dirty vichyssoise. If they are new potatoes, and this time of year they ought to be, don’t bother peeling them. Make an effort to dice them evenly, so that the pieces all cook at the same rate and are conveniently bite-sized, but don’t work yourself up over the matter. I like to take a sliver off of each end to make the dicing neater, and I could tell you that this is a safety measure, that the knife is less apt to slip from a squared-off potato, but in fact I do it because I once had pretensions. If you, too, have pretensions, or once did, squaring off your potatoes is a harmless way to express them. No one will notice either way.
By the time the onions are soft the cobs should be spent and their liquor fragrant and greenish-gold. Pour this into your soup pot. You may strain it if you wish, but I don’t see the point; just hold back the cobs and vegetables with a spoon. Don’t add too much at first; we want only enough liquid to cook the potatoes and corn kernels. Add the potatoes and a bit of salt to season them; bring the pot to a boil, then add the corn, which needs a bit less cooking time, and return the pot to a boil. Reduce the heat and let it simmer contentedly while you clean up the mess you have made thus far. If you have avoided such nonsense as extra pans and strainers, you should have time left over to watch the birds pick berries off the tree outside the kitchen window, to play a waltz on your clarinet, to rehearse that sonnet you’ve been memorizing for your true love’s birthday. Possibly for all three, if you’re quick about it.
Inhale deeply the fragrant… no, never mind, we already did that bit.
Check the potatoes: they should be fork-tender (more to the point, tooth-tender) but not falling-apart soft, not quite mashable. If the appointed hour for dinner has not yet arrived, turn off the heat and cover the pot; it will wait for you. When you, your guests, and the potatoes are all ready, add cream. Not half-and-half; we’re already thinning it with a potful of water. Not evaporated milk; we’ve lavished too much care on this dish to open a can. Don’t flinch now from destiny: we want cream. If you can possibly buy actual cream that came from an actual cow, cream that began as grass and has not been ultrapasteurized and adulterated with carrageenan and glycerides, by all means do so. Cream from a cow is rich and pale; cream from a carton is unctuous and wan. Shades of meaning are everything.
Be generous but not indulgent. A cup is probably plenty, but add less and taste it as you go. The soup should feel round and smooth in your mouth and convey the aura and bliss of dairy, but the cream should not wash out the soup. Cream sings alto in this choir, not soprano.
Warm the chowder through again, but don’t let it rise above a simmer. Cream is a gentle soul; handle it with care.
Now comes the time for you to Express Yourself. The corn has expressed itself, and the bacon and onions and potatoes and cream as well; now it is your turn. Taste for salt, to start. Add black pepper. But still our chowder needs something — something bright and astringent to cut the richness of bacon and cream, something pungent and savory to balance the sweetness of cream and corn. What?
Chopped fresh thyme, if you have some. (If you don’t have any, make a note to plant some in a window box or a flower bed.) Or:
Smoked paprika. Or powdered chipotle, plus chopped fresh cilantro for garnish.
Cumin and coriander seed, toasted whole and ground.
A bit of minced rosemary (be judicious) and a garnish of chopped scallions.
Chopped fresh tomato, added with the cream to warm it, and a chiffonade of fresh basil. Or:
Whatever else is fresh or in season or crying out from your pantry to be enjoyed. If experimenting makes you nervous, ladle out a small bowl and add a pinch of your fancy to taste before diving into the great pot. Whatever you add, remember that a little will go a long way, and save a bit of anything green for a garnish.
Ladle the chowder into bowls, sprinkle on the crisp bits of bacon (did you think I forgot? heaven forfend) and add your garnish if you have one.
Pour some wine or (my preference) a good Belgian wit.
Be happy. Be well.
The Shakers believed that we ought to work each day as if it were our last, and as if we would live ten thousand years. What if we cooked and ate that way? What must our dinners become? Each dinner would have to be thoughtfully attended and made worth the attention, excellently but not extravagantly, carefully but not exhaustingly and eaten with relish but not gluttony. A year of such dinners shouldn’t send us to meet our maker, but when we do meet him, we don’t want to have to explain why we eschewed his bounty. We must revel in joyful simplicity. Corn chowder is a good start.