It’s already beginning. That subtle yet noticeable change is in the air. Summer is waning and fall is moving in to take its place. By about this time I’ve usually grown bored with summer meals of cookouts and salads. I actually look forward to fall because now is the time to start thinking about making soup.
Aren’t you excited to unpack the sweaters, light the fire pits and cook up food that warms from the inside out? My favorite early fall soup is not only hearty but it makes the most of the last gasp of the corn and zucchini season. Though corn can be a little starchy this time of year for eating off the cob, those starches and sugars add up to a delicious bowl of chowder rich with milk and cream, chunks of green zucchini and potatoes, fresh thyme from the herb patch and pink cubes of salty, smoky ham. The finishing touch is a whisper of spicy cayenne over the top of each serving. You’re going to love it. Especially with a nice loaf of crusty ciabatta bread and a glass of chilled Riesling.
To make this chowder even more luscious, I like to smash it up a little bit once it’s cooked to make it thicker and creamier. To accomplish this task I employ one of my favorite kitchen gadgets, the immersion blender. I love this little device because I can stick one end of it into the pot on the stove and pulse it a few times to just blend the soup enough to give it the texture I’m looking for…still chunky but definitely thicker. It’s a cool tool to have if you make a lot of soup and much easier than blending a portion of the soup in a processor. For a lower tech version you can also mash it up a bit with a potato masher. It isn’t quite as much fun, but it gets the job done.
It seems like such a long time ago that Meredith and I were in the trenches writing 300 Sensational Soups, our fourth book in so many years. That was a lot of soup to cook, but one of the most healthy and satisfactory of meal times for our families. No, we didn’t lose weight (it could have been the great bread and dipping oils that accompanied most of these meals) but our families were undeniably happily fed. One of the best things about a pot of soup is the leftovers which freeze up for a no hassle future meal. My dinner challenged adult children used to love raiding the freezer whenever they’d stop by. It even became a little competitive (Soup Wars), but that’s another story. So, go on and say good-bye to summer by making a pot of this heavenly chowder which is apparently worth fighting over.
Kitchen Counter Point: To make this soup even cornier (and what could be bad about that?), I like to add the de-kerneled naked cobs to the soup while it cooks. It is amazing how much corn essence ekes out of the cobs after a short cook. Plus, you can pat yourself on the back for extracting extra flavor from something that most cooks would have just tossed in the compost heap.
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
10 grinds of pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 ears corn, husked and corn cut from the cobs, reserving cobs
2 large zucchini, cut into 1-inch dice
1 large potato, cut into 1-inch dice
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, stemmed and chopped
2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, chopped
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 1/2 cups cooked ham, diced
1 cup half-and-half or more if desired
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, plus more for sprinkling
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon sherry or rice vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Heat a large soup pot over medium-high heat and melt the butter. When the butter is hot, add the onion, salt and pepper and sauté for 2 or 3 minutes or until it begins to soften. Add the garlic and cook 1 more minute or until the garlic is fragrant.
Add the corn, zucchini, potato, thyme and parsley and cook for another 3 minutes or until the vegetables begin to soften. Add the chicken stock, ham and corn cobs and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the soup, uncovered, until the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes. Remove the corn cobs and discard them.
Pulse the soup with an immersion blender or pulse 1/3 of the soup in a blender or food processor and return it to the pot. You can also just mash the soup in the pot a few times with a potato masher to thicken it up.
Add the half-and-half, cayenne, nutmeg and vinegar and reheat over medium heat if necessary. Avoid boiling as the cream will curdle. Season to taste with more salt and pepper if desired. Ladle into heated bowls and garnish with a dusting of cayenne pepper on top if you like a little more bite to your chowder.
Variation: This chowder recipe just begs to be messed with, so if you have some sausage lying around, go ahead and substitute it for the ham. Just cook it up with the onions. Likewise with the herbs. Chives, oregano and basil all work with the corn and I wouldn’t mind a little red bell pepper sautéed up with the onions for a little color. The point is to use what is freshest at the market or what you have in the fridge that needs to be used up.