Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Corn & Sweet Potato Chowder

Corn Chowder is one of my favorite soups. I'm not sure how this particular soup came by its name since a chowder is technically a chunky, stew-like fish and/or shellfish soup. The term chowder comes from the French word chaudière.  A chaudière is the type of pot in which these hearty seafood soups were traditionally prepared. Even though the source of the name is a bit mysterious, everyone seems to know what you mean when you say "corn chowder".  I don't think I'm alone in my affection for it. I freeze sweet corn from the farmers market every summer just so I will have corn on hand to make this soup when the weather turns cold.

We haven't had too much cold weather yet this fall.  But on Tuesday, as I headed to Lawrence to teach my soup class, the sky was a thick blanket of gray and a cold wind was blowing...perfect weather for a soup class. How lucky is that?

In its most basic form, corn chowder includes bacon, onions, potatoes, corn and either milk or cream. It is typically thickened with a roux (flour cooked in a bit of fat—in this case bacon fat and butter). The recipe that I turn to most often is from The New Basics Cookbook. I make it almost exactly as written, only omitting a final garnish of sautéed red pepper (a widely popular addition) and sliced green onions. There is nothing wrong with this garnish—corn and peppers are a great combination—I have just been in the habit of leaving them out.

When you make the soup, make sure that you cook the bacon until it is almost crisp—it will continue to render a bit after the onions are added, but not too much. If the bacon isn't sufficiently rendered, you will have flabby pieces of fatty bacon floating around your soup. Also, make sure you take the time to cook the onions until they are very tender before adding the flour and proceeding with the rest of the recipe. Crunchy bits of onion are unpleasant in a soup full of soft textures.

As you work through the recipe, you'll notice that there is an addition of butter before the onions are added to the pan. If the bacon is very fatty, this butter may not be necessary. On the occasion when the bacon does give off a lot of fat, I add the onions to the bacon and only add butter if the pan appears to be dry. There should be enough fat in the pan so that the onions are gently sizzling in the fat. If they aren't, add some or all of the butter. Before adding the flour, check the pan again to see if more fat is needed. If the onions have absorbed all of the fat, or the bacon was very lean, then you may need to add more butter. There should be enough fat in the pan to form a paste with the flour.

A couple of years ago, when the weather began to cool off and I was in the mood for corn chowder, I had some of the first sweet potatoes of the season in my pantry. I also found that I was short on Idaho potatoes. Not wanting to run to the store, I thought I would substitute sweet potatoes for some of the Idaho potatoes. We loved the resulting "Corn & Sweet Potato Chowder". I almost always make it this way now. It's perfect for this time of year. What surprises me today is that I had never thought of this combination before. Sweet potatoes are great with bacon. Furthermore, I am particularly fond of corn paired with sweet potatoes (or winter squash)....something about the sweetness of these two vegetables together pushes my taste buttons. And if you still have some sage left in your garden (it usually hangs on for a while), try adding some to the onions and bacon as they cook.  It makes a nice accent to the sweet and salty flavors of this autumn variation on traditional corn chowder.

Corn & Sweet Potato Chowder

4 oz. sliced bacon, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 T. unsalted butter
1 large onion (about 10 to 12 oz.), cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 2 cups)
1 T. minced fresh sage, optional
3 T. flour
6 c. chicken stock or canned low-salt broth
2 Idaho potatoes (about 1 1/2 lb.), peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 4 cups)
2 medium sweet potatoes (about 1 lb.), peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 3 cups)
4 c. fresh or frozen corn
1 c. heavy cream (half & half or milk may be substituted)
Salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste

Cook bacon over medium-low heat in a large soup pot until fat is rendered and bacon is beginning to brown around the edges. Add the butter and melt. Add the onions (and sage, if using) and sweat until tender and translucent—about 10 to 15 minutes.

Add the flour to the cooked onions and continue to cook briefly. Add the stock and Idaho and sweet potatoes. Bring to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are just tender—12 to 15 minutes. Add the corn, cream and some salt & pepper. Bring back to a simmer and cook until the corn is hot through and tender. Add more stock or water if the soup is too thick. Taste and correct the seasoning.  Makes about 3 quarts of soup.

Variation:  To make a more "traditional" corn chowder, omit the sweet potatoes.  Reduce the stock to 4 cups and the flour to 2 T.  Omit the sage, or replace with picked thyme.


mahakasyapa said...

I don't eat bacon, but every time you use it in a recipe, I think maybe I ought to change my mind and just have some... :) (This is Alison, by the way!)

Paige said...

Hi Alison! It's great to hear from you. I hope you are doing well. (I love your profile photo.)

I know you know this, but you can make this soup without the bacon....I think I would really miss it, but that's probably because I'm used to it.

Thanks for leaving a comment. I miss you at The Merc.

Katrina said...

I just made split pea soup last night (I've got a cold and needed soup!). I was in a hurry, and didn't have ham, but threw some bacon in and think it really needed that flavor. Soup season is here! Missed your soup class.
Last year, LOVED the mushroom soup. Made it not long after the class, too.

TJ Everett said...

Made this for the second time tonight. Wonderful soup. My boyfriend's jaw dropped when he tasted it. Thanks for the recipe.

Paige said...

Hi TJ! Thank you so much for taking a minute to let me know how much you and your boyfriend enjoy this soup! It made my evening. :)