Let us all acknowledge the truth about roast chicken: it’s not about the chicken, it’s about the vegetables. That truth dawned on me long ago when I used to line a roasting pan with red potatoes sliced in half, all surrounding a well-seasoned chicken; the rendered chicken fat would coat the potatoes, they’d get all crispy, and when it was time to eat, the actual roast chicken was an afterthought. It only got better when I discovered Thomas Keller’s roast chicken: in with the potatoes went leeks, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga, turnips, and suddenly next to that pretty little bird would be vegetables as beautiful as the crown jewels. Now imagine turning those salty, schmaltzy vegetables into soup, a soup that takes about 5 minutes.
There’s a corn soup that you need to know about before the corn goes away and, sadly, the corn’s going away pretty soon. Grab some, OK? The sweet stuff. You’re about to make a corn soup that’s so good even people who hate corn soup–CRAIG’S PARENTS–will declare it wonderful. (I didn’t know Craig’s parents hated corn soup when I made this for them…more on that in a bit.) Confession: I took beautiful pictures of this recipe and the process of making it and then lost them, somehow, on the journey from my camera to my computer. So you’re stuck with these ones from my phone, but bear with me. It’s worth it.
Recipes, sometimes, are like dreams. You experience them but then, quite often, you forget that you’ve experienced them. And then you’re standing somewhere, and the memory floods back to you: “I was being chased by a gorilla through Filene’s Basement!” Or, in this case, “I once made a corn chowder so good that I wrote a post called CORNGASM and didn’t even share the recipe.” That was back in 2007, after I’d interviewed Chef Jasper White for Salon.com. All these years later, the memory of that chowder came back to me as I started planning the menu for our V.I.P. dinner guests. And after making it again, I can assure you: it really is the corn chowder of your dreams.
Imagine this. You get a terrible cold, you’re sick as a dog, your boyfriend gets you juice, soup (Pho from down the street), the works. Then you get better, fly to Florida for your parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, and while there, your boyfriend breaks the news: he has your cold. You’re not there to help, though, so when you return on Sunday–and he’s at the peak of his illness–you know you have to spring into action. You’ve gotta make up for all the TLC you weren’t there to give him during the first two days of his illness. Upon landing at the airport, you rush to the grocery store and stock up on everything you need to make the ultimate cold cure, Jewish penicillin: chicken soup. Only, you want to make it fast.
I’m not a religious person except when it comes to the healing power of chicken soup. At the first sniffle of a new cold, I’m usually plopping a raw chicken into a pot with root vegetables and parsley and dill; or, more recently, doctoring homemade chicken broth with ginger, soy sauce, and chile paste. Last Thursday, though, I felt a cold coming on and instead of turning to the feathered gods wearing yarmulkes in a jacuzzi, I turned to a new god, one whose soup mastery revealed itself on Craig’s birthday with celery root and pears. That god is Alfred Portale and I’m now an official acolyte, studying his under-appreciated cookbook, Simple Pleasures, the way Madonna studies Kabbalah. It’s powerful stuff.
This year, on Craig’s birthday, I had a revelation. My usual instinct to take him out to a fancy dinner on the big day (a tradition that began with an epic meal at Per Se back in 2008) really has nothing to do with Craig’s interests or wants and everything to do with my own. Who likes fancy dinners? I do, not Craig. So this year I asked him point blank if he wanted to go out for a fancy dinner on the occasion and he said he’d actually like it better if I made the dinner here at home. I have to admit, that was pretty flattering–given the option of Thomas Keller food or Adam Roberts food, Craig picked the latter. I knew I had to make this dinner special.
The first time that I made a really good chicken soup (documented here), it felt like I’d translated an ancient Jewish text–the Dead Soup Scrolls–and that the resulting soup was irrefutable, everlasting, not-to-be-tampered with. Then, over time, I began to realize that the recipe, which is really just a formula for a very concentrated chicken stock, flavored with root vegetables, and freshened up with more vegetables and dill at the end, was really just that: a formula. A guideline. You could play around and the Jewish police wouldn’t arrest you. So, a few weeks ago, when I had the start of a pretty nasty cold, I decided to integrate some of the flavors that make ramen so curative when colds start to hit hard. And the results were tremendous indeed.
When Rebecca Charles of New York’s celebrated Pearl Oyster Bar first taught me the recipe for her scallop chowder, I asked if it was possible to substitute milk for the cream. She looked at me like I was crazy. “Why would you want to do that?” she asked. Good question.
This recipe (featured in SECRETS OF THE BEST CHEFS, a great holiday gift!) is one of the simplest, most comforting winter foods you can possibly make. Turns out, it’s all about the cream which has the remarkable ability to take on whatever flavors you heat it up with. In dessert, that flavored mixture becomes ice cream; here it becomes chowder.