I love creating new dishes around key themes; for instance, since it’s September, fresh corn soup. I latched on to this methodology many moons ago as a fine art major at Central Washington University under the direction of Professor Richard Fairbanks, an influential artist in Northwest ceramics. Richard Fairbanks believed that you could not accomplish anything significant on the potter’s wheel except by focused repetition on a theme. Thus, when I would show him 25 pots of a similar size and shape (which took weeks to create), he would maybe point to two and say, “Throw the rest in the clay bucket.”
Years later, at the University of Washington, under the direction of Fiber Art Professors Layne Goldsmith and Lou Cabeen, I still preferred to work in what by then was called a “series.” Whether the variations on the theme were major or minor, there was always more learning than if I jumped from one idea to another without a focus. So, while some cooks may have a recipe folder for Soups and maybe even a subfolder for Vegetable Soups, I take it a step further and have a sub-subfolder for Corn Soups, Potato Soups, Tortilla Soups, and Seafood Chowders–to name a few of the culinary themes that hold me in thrall right now.
After deciding on a theme, I give myself the gift of many hours–or days–or weeks–of research. Oh heck, some of my research themes have been going now for years and show no signs of resolving themselves anytime soon. I consult the cookbooks in my collection, browse through the aisles and aisles of cookbooks at Powell’s Books in Portland, search the Internet, and generally stay open to the “muse” who almost always rewards mania with inspiration. When my mind is overflowing with ideas, I scout out a local farmer’s market–in Portland, I head to Hillsdale Farmers Market or Portland Farmers Market; in Seattle, I head to Pike Place Market or University District Farmers Market.
It’s always instructive to see what other foods are in season, along with the ingredient I want to feature. Nature has a way of offering the most perfect seasonal combinations of tastes, colors, and textures. From mid-August through September, for instance, corn shares the farmers tables with Asian greens, basil, beets, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, chard, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic shoots, ginger root, green onions, hot peppers, kale, lettuce, parsley, red onions, shallots, shell beans, spinach, summer squash, sunchokes, sweet peppers, sweet onions, tomatoes, and wild mushrooms.
There are surely numerous great flavor combinations within this group. For this soup, however, I decided to keep the focus on the corn. It’s all too easy to overwhelm the sweet, subtle flavor of corn with other more assertive ingredients. By keeping the more assertive flavors separate, as in the accompanying escabeche, the contrasting flavors do a little jig on the palate, taking turns on center stage–rather than melding together in an incomprehensible mash.
Fresh Corn & Chipotle Soup
I worked as much corn into this soup as I could and even left out a cream finish, so that the flavor of fresh corn is right there in that first spoonful. The chipotle chile adds a nice degree of smoky heat; not too much for my palate, but if you are unsure of your guest’s tolerance levels, you might want to cut the chile back by half on your first try. This soup is excellent without the escabeche and certainly simpler to make. But for special occasions, do include it. It’s heaven!
3 tablespoons light olive oil (extra-virgin olive oil is too assertive here)
2 cups chopped yellow onion (about 1 medium-large onion)
1 cup peeled chopped shallots
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced or pressed
6 cups (2 pounds) fresh yellow corn kernels, cut from the cob; cobs cut into 4-inch sections and reserved
4 cups chicken stock
1 cup peeled, chopped tomatoes with their juice
1 canned chipotle chile in adobo sauce (freeze the rest for later use)
1½ teaspoon sea salt, or more to taste
freshly ground white pepper, to taste
Prawn, Avocado, and Lime Escabeche, optional
- In a large stovetop casserole or wide soup pot, over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the onions, shallots, and garlic to the casserole and cook over medium-low heat until onions are softened but not browned, about 15 minutes.
- While the onions are cooking, add half (3 cups) of the corn kernels to a processor fitted with the steel blade and pulse repeatedly to begin the pureeing process. Now switch to On and through the feed tube, begin slowly adding 1½ cups of the chicken stock to the corn. If the mixture seizes up and won’t move, stop the processor and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Continue in this way until this portion of stock is added and the corn mixture looks almost smooth. Stop the processor and carefully remove the chopping blade. Pour the mixture into a large mixing bowl.
- Reposition the now empty work bowl on the processor and reset the steel blade. Repeat the above process with the remaining corn and 1½ cups chicken stock. When the mixture is almost smooth, add the tomatoes and chipotle chile through the feed tube with the processor running. Continue processing until almost smooth. Stop the processor and remove the steel blade. Pour the mixture into the large bowl containing the first batch of pureed corn. Stir vigorously to combine both batches.
- Transfer the corn mixture to the soup pot with the onions, shallots, and garlic. Add the cobs to the pot. Bring to a simmer and cook slowly for 10-15 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent sticking on the bottom of the pan. Add the remaining 1 cup of chicken stock and stir to combine.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Remove the soup from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Remove and discard the cobs, scraping as much soup off of them as possible.
- Position a food mill fitted with a fine disc over a large mixing bowl and put the soup through it. Alternatively, you can leave the soup as it is, which is a bit chunky. If you are holding the soup for later, transfer to a storage container, cover, and refrigerate until ready to serve.
- Reheat the soup and serve simply. Or, for a more formal presentation, place 2 tablespoons of the drained escabeche in the center of each bowl and pour the hot soup around it. Over each serving, drizzle a little of the oil remaining from the drained escabeche. Put the bowls on plates, garnish the plates with cilantro leaves and lime wedges, and serve.
Makes 8 cups; serves 6-8.
Prawn, Avocado, & Lime Escabeche
This is a wonderful garnish for creamy soups and also great as a topping for tostados.
Term Note…Escabeche is pronounced es-cah-BAY-chay in Spanish and es-cah-BESH in French. However you pronounce it, the term usually connotes vinegar, herbs, and stock, water, or oil. Cooks are all over the map in the ways they compose an escabeche, but essentially, if you think “brothy vinaigrette enrobing or covering vegetables, chicken, or seafood,” you have the general idea.
8 large prawns, deveined and in the shell
1 ripe avocado, peeled, seeded, and diced
finely grated zest of 1 lime
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Lightly coat the bottom of a medium sauté pan with vegetable spray and set over medium-high heat. When hot, add the prawns and sauté for about 2 minutes on each side, adding a few drops of water to the pan if it becomes too dry. When cooked, the prawns will be bright pink on both sides. Remove from the pan and let cool.
- When cool enough to handle, peel the prawns and cut off the tail. Cut each prawn crosswise into three pieces.
- In a medium-size bowl, combine the prawns, lime zest, lime juice, olive oil, and cilantro.
- Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.