Saturday, September 15, 2007

Traditional Corn Chowder

The truth is I had corn left over from making spoon bread (see earlier post), four ears to be exact, or just the right amount to make some corn chowder. I was determined to make a chowder that allowed the corn flavor to shine, with the ingredients I had on hand.

This, I imagine, is the way chowders started, with the most basic ingredients and not requiring a trip to the supermarket. Yes, you can put just about anything in your chowder--celery, different colored bell peppers, your favorite herbs, even a big ol' lump of crab meat. But as I said, I wanted to keep this simple, focusing more on extracting as much flavor from my leftover corn as possible. This is the kind of dish a farm family would make at the end of a long day, not something to fuss over.

To make a chowder for six to eight persons, start with four exceedingly fresh ears of your favorite corn. Shuck the corn and remove the kernels by setting a small ceramic bowl upside-down inside a large mixing bowl and cutting the kernels away from the cob with a serrated bread knife. Set the kernels aside. Break the four cobs in half and place them in a pot with 4 cups (1 quart) water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and cook for two hours to create a stock for the chowder. (To keep the cobs submerged in the water, I cover them with a collapsible stainless steaming basket.)

Meanwhile, cut four thick strips of bacon into small pieces and cook them with a bit of vegetable oil over moderate heat in the bottom of a heavy pot or Dutch oven large enough to contain your chowder. (If bacon is not something you eat, substitute vegetable oil for the rendered bacon grease in the next step). Remove the bacon when it is just crispy and brown to your liking. Add 1 medium onion, cut into small dice, to the hot bacon grease or oil, season with salt and cook until soft. Add 1 clove garlic, minced, and cook a few minutes more. Now add the raw corn kernels and the finished corn stock, raise the heat until the chowder comes to a boil, then reduce heat and cook for 30 minutes, or until the corn is soft and the flavors have melded.

While the chowder is still cooking, stir in 1 cup heavy cream (or whole milk if you are watching the fat content). Season with about 1 teaspoon kosher salt (or to taste), 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin and freshly ground black pepper and remove from heat.

At this point I like to process half the chowder in a blender, then add it back to the pot, only because I like a smoother texture. But you don't have to. If you do use the blender, remember to place a kitchen towel over the lid so you don't burn your hand while holding the lid in place. You can make this chowder a day ahead. The flavors will meld while it sits in the refrigerator.

Serve hot, garnished with the browned bacon bits and a generous sprig of fresh cilantro.

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