In New England, we measure the seasons by the crops, and this is one of the best!
When Corn Season is upon us, we can’t wait to taste that wonderful sweet first bite. Often, the best flavor is usually not found at the beginning of the season, but a few weeks in. But this year, from the first bite, it was Corn Heaven! Corn in September is usually really sweet, and precious because we know it is going fast. Farmers often grow more than one variety as well, so you just have to taste, and taste again. Not a difficult task.
Our first corn meal is most likely simple – thrown on the grill, husks and all, no soaking. Once done and the outsides nicely singed, before letting them cool, impatiently we peel back the husks to use as a handle, add a little butter and munch away, napkins at hand. That first corn meal includes nothing but corn, and we couldn’t be happier.
The last corn meal of the year?
The last corn meal, and we’re never really quite sure when that will be, is also simple, often a chowder paired with our local potatoes and onions or leeks. With a nip in the air and the temperature dropping, a farmer told me today at the farmers market that there might be one more week, weather permitting, so I took no chances and decided on that chowder, but of course I made it my way, which is to say traditional with a twist!
Fresh is best!
This chowder recipe is best with all fresh vegetables from the corn to the chives. However, if these are not available, you can substitute with what you have on hand. In winter, use not-quite-so-new red potatoes, frozen local corn, and freeze-dried chives. At the end of the year, I tuck a package of whole ears in the freezer to make at least one batch during the winter.
My big swap from the way my mother made her chowder (in addition to not using bacon) is to use leeks rather than onions, but if they are not available, a really sweet onion works nicely.
The right consistency
A good chowder has a milky base, not the thick consistency you get from a heavy flour roux. Let your vegetables be the star, don’t cover them up with a flour paste! That’s how my mom did it, and it’s good enough for me as well. She often used the New England standby of canned evaporated milk, and occasionally I use this as well (an organic skimmed variety). It brings me back home.
Not quite my mother’s technique
However, times change, and one of my favorite ways to make this is with lite coconut milk, different can, same creamy consistency! If you don’t tell anyone they will never guess it is dairy free. Don’t use the full fat variety unless you want “Coconut Corn Soup” the flavor is more pronounced. You can also substitute any other white milk substitute, or any % milk you like. Yes, you can even use half-and-half if you like!
For even more corn flavor, cook the potatoes and corn directly in dairy or plant milk and omit the water. Don’t use the canned coconut for this as it might split.
Now, if there’s time, I think I’d love some corn bread…
New England Corn Chowder (with a twist or two)
- 1 tbsp. organic corn or olive oil
- 3 cups diced leeks or sweet onion
- 2 lbs. new potatoes, diced, not peeled
- OR, 1 head cauliflower, cut into little ½ -inch chunks
- 6 ears fresh sweet corn, lightly roasted or grilled
- The cobs from those ears
- Smoked paprika to taste, optional
- 1 tsp. each salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 can light coconut milk, evaporated milk, or half-and-half
- 1 cup water, or so, just to cover potatoes, or use milk or substitute
- A little more pepper
- A little butter or vegan butter
Lightly roast or grill the (locally grown, extremely fresh) sweet corn for about 8 minutes, it will finish cooking in the soup. Roast or grill them with most of the husks on, and then peel them off. This keeps the corn moist. Cut the corn from the cobs, and cut the cobs in half and reserve. The pre-roasting is not essential, but adds lovely flavor. If you like, just proceed without this step.
Plan-ahead shortcut: Alternately, I’ve roasted the corn one day for a meal, made extra, and saved the rest (cobs and all) for the next day’s soup.
In a large stockpot, over medium high, heat the oil and add the diced leeks or onion. Sauté until tender, but not brown, and sprinkle with a little smoked paprika if desired. Let this mingle for a few minutes and add salt, pepper, and the potatoes.
Add half the corn, and just enough cold water to nearly cover the potatoes. Add the cobs; it’s all right if a few stick out of the water. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat, and simmer on very low heat for one half hour. Check the potatoes to make sure they are done.
Remove from heat and set aside for 10 minutes, tightly covered, while warming the coconut milk or cream in a little pan. Once warmed, fish out the cobs. This is a little messy, but the cobs add tremendous flavor to the soup. Add the remaining corn kernels, and stir coconut milk into the soup. Add butter to top and let melt, sprinkle with the chives and, if you like, more paprika. Serve hot. Makes 10 one-cup servings!
Bacon? It’s a New England classic to include bacon, my mom always did, but in our family, there is a bacon debate. Some, like me, prefer corn chowder without bacon; the smoke flavor from the paprika is quite a good substitute. A compromise is to offer some local, nitrite- and cruelty-free bacon, crisp and chopped up, for folks who eat meat to sprinkle on top. Everyone is happy. If you all eat bacon, sauté a few cut up slices along with the onions.
A little lower carb? Substitute diced cauliflower for the potatoes to cut down on the carbs a little, but there is no substitution for the corn. It is, after all, corn chowder!
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