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Corn Chowder Warms the Heart

The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is filled with parties, holiday dinners and lovely meals with houseguests. It can also feel as if every spare moment must be spent in the kitchen or at the market gathering food to refill the fridge and pantry. The week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve was a marathon of mixing, stirring, slicing, dicing, creaming and blending. It’s time to make a change.

I have resolved that until I get to Sicily in March, I will make meals that are simple to prepare, have a limited number of ingredients and are even better the second time around. Chowder was my course changer. 

Chowder is defined as any of a variety of soups, made with milk, enriched with salt pork and thickened with flour. It has been around since the sixteenth century when it was considered “poor man’s fare.” The word chowder may come from the French chaudiere, a pot used by fishermen in France to make a hearty fish stew by cooking fish with milk and vegetables, or it may come from jowter, the Old English term for a person who sells fish.

The fish closest to my pot was a 20-minute drive through the snow and eliminating trips to the market is part of my new resolve. Corn chowder, made with bacon, potatoes, corn and milk, is a perfectly respectable chowder and I had everything I needed in the pantry and fridge. Here’s how I made it:

Corn Chowder

1/2 pound bacon, cut in half-inch strips

2 medium onions, cut in 1/2 inch dice

2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 cups water

1 pound unpeeled yellow flesh potatoes, cut in 1/2 inch cubes

1 pound frozen corn kernels

3 cups whole milk

1 vegetable bouillon cube

1/4 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped

salt and pepper to taste

Although traditional chowder is flavored with salt pork, I used bacon to give the soup a smoky taste. I cooked it in my large stockpot over medium heat until the fat had rendered, about 10 minutes, then added the onions to the pot. When they were soft and translucent, I stirred in the flour. After the flour had cooked for two minutes, I stirred in the water and the bouillon cube. When the water began to boil, I lowered the heat, covered the pot and cooked the soup until the potatoes were tender (about 10 minutes), then I added the corn kernels and the milk. I heated the soup, without letting it boil, and simmered it for five minutes to cook the corn. Topped with a handful of parsley and a big grind of black pepper, the soup was ready to serve in bowls that had been heated in the microwave.

I served the bowls of steaming chowder with wedges of hot corn bread that I had baked in a cast iron skillet and then slathered with butter. This dinner made me forget that the thermometer read minus two, and it warmed everyone’s heart, hands and tummy. Best of all, there was enough soup for dinner the next evening and lunch the day after that.

Chowder has become a winter staple and I make a vegetarian version by using a couple of tablespoons of unsalted butter instead of bacon. When gluten-intolerant friends come to dinner, I leave out the flour and serve saltines for the more tolerant diners who want to thicken the chowder by crumbling crackers into the bowl of hot soup. Corn chowder is transformed into fish chowder by adding, after the potatoes are tender, three quarters of a pound of mild white fish, cod or haddock, cut into one-inch chunks. The soup is simmered until the fish is cooked, about five minutes.

If you replace the corn with two cans of clams, the water with clam juice, some of the milk with cream and add a generous pinch of thyme, you will have a chaudiere of most presentable clam chowder, hardly poor man’s fare.

Carol Egbert lives in Quechee, where she paints and cooks. Her food blog can be found at www.carolegbert.com.