I live on a small farm on Martha’s Vineyard, where my partner and I grow a variety of vegetables, but ironically, we don’t grow my favorite one—sweet corn. We’ve got a good excuse, though: The farm next door grows 12 varieties of the sweetest corn you’ll ever taste, and every day in late summer, they drop off a bushel bag for us. We sell the corn at our farmstand, but a few ears always end up in my kitchen. Pretty soon, I’m making corn chowder—the best way I know to hold onto summer as it draws to a close.
My corn chowder recipe starts with the classic technique of building a flavorful broth from the ground up, starting with a hearty base of aromatics, which include onions and celery. But in a departure from tradition, I use ham instead of bacon, because I think it tastes better in this soup, and I add a little bit of sweet bell pepper because it’s a tried-and-true flavor partner for corn and ham. These ingredients, plus a few other tricks, make for a rich but not heavy chowder bursting with corn flavor. It’s a soup you’ll want to enjoy again and again until the season ends.
Need to Know
Use ham instead of bacon or salt pork. Traditional chowders begin with rendering bacon or salt pork, and sautéing aromatics in some of the fat. I find that ham, which can be left in the soup while it’s simmering (unlike bacon), adds more flavor.
Choose half-and-half instead of milk or cream. A creamy chowder should be mostly broth and only a little bit of “cream.” Heavy cream can be too rich, and milk curdles at anything above a gentle simmer. Half-and-half is stable and adds just the right amount of richness.
Get every bit of flavor from the corn. First, snap the cobs in half, so you get a flat end on each piece. Stand a cob half upright on a flat end and it won’t wobble the way a whole cob would as you slice the kernels off. (Slice into a wide bowl or on a towel-covered cutting board to stop flying kernels.) Once the kernels are off, the cobs will still have some partial kernels and juice (or “milk”) left in them. To grab this extra flavor, use the back of a knife to scrape that good stuff into a bowl. Finally, to extract any flavor left in the cobs, toss them into your broth.
Sauté the kernels separately. When corn is sautéed, it releases sweet, starchy juice, which cooks down and caramelizes on the bottom of the pan. When you deglaze the pan with the half-and-half, you infuse it with concentrated corn flavor that’s more complex than what you’d get if you just added the kernels straight to the soup. Skip the flour. Instead of thickening chowder with flour, which can make it pasty and heavy, purée some of the vegetables at the end of cooking and stir the purée into the soup to add a little body. The purée also tends to emulsify any fat that might be floating on top of the soup.