The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook is the kind of tome that Isaac Newton might have gone for, had he not been so busy conducting his research and sending threatening letters to Leibniz, arguing which of the two of them invented the notion of infinitesimal calculus. Indeed, the book is so heavy that it might have made the perfect object to drop from the window for that little gravity experiment.
In other words, Cook’s Illustrated applies the scientific method in the kitchen. And I have to say that I have never come across a more useful resource book than the volume released this winter of “2,000 recipes from 20 years of America’s most trusted food magazine.” The chefs in the CI kitchen methodically hypothesize, observe, experiment and draw conclusions.
Take, for instance, what they do with corn chowder, the discussion of which comes near the end of the section on soups. First they present a recipe for Classic Corn Chowder, followed by one for Modern Corn Chowder. I’ll bet I don’t have to tell you which one has more dairy fat in it — and therefore which one is more delicious, though neither is anything to dismiss with a kernel of corn.
The modern chowder, in fact, is a fussier recipe that involves “juicing” the corn “milk” out of eight ears of corn by using a vegetable peeler on naked corn cobs and then squeezing the yield through a clean kitchen towel. NO thank ya! I’ll take my milk from a cow.
On the other hand, the modern version calls for bacon slices rather than the classic’s salt pork (which is not smoked and which you are chastened to keep distinct from fatback, aka pure fat). Having tried the recipe both ways — as well as with country ham — I have concluded that high-quality bacon is the best choice. So I’ve imported that one ingredient from the modern into the classic.
Now we all know, according to the edicts of the keepin’-it-local-and-seasonal movement, that a soup called Fresh Corn Chowder is a thing that should be whipped up in the late summertime. But for three big reasons I am writing about it in the chill of late winter.
The first is, the recipe is so good and simple that you’ll want to file it away to use in every season, which means you’ll be able to do it properly with ears from the farmers’ market next summer.
The second is (shh, certain folks don’t like to let this out), corn that is fresh-frozen is uniformly the highest-quality corn. In several blind tastings, judges chose Birdseye brand corn over all others for “sweetness, crunchiness, and juiciness.” (I know, I know — it makes you want to start an Internet Flame War.)
Which brings us to reason three: Who doesn’t want a hearty, warming chowder after escaping the cold winds of March? No one. What better time to serve up a steaming tureen of the stuff than right in the middle of basketball madness? Quadrupling the recipe is insanely easy when using frozen kernels. And with that in mind, here is a nifty tip from the testing kitchen at Cook’s Illustrated. Cream-based soups taste better reheated the second day than right off the stovetop. This is because the lactose in the milk breaks down into sweeter-tasting glucose. Not only that, but the carbohydrates in the onions also perform a similar trick. And if this isn’t quite enough, the starches in the potatoes and flour break down into still more flavorful compounds.
So keep this soup away from those freaky lactose-glucose-gluten-intolerant friends of yours. That way, there’ll be more for the rest of us.
Fresh Corn Chowder
10 ears of corn, husks and silks removed, or 5 cups of frozen corn kernels*
4 slices of bacon, halved lengthwise, then cut crosswise into ¼-inch pieces
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large onion, preferably Spanish, chopped fine
2 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
3 cups chicken stock or canned low-sodium chicken broth
8 small red or fingerling potatoes (about 12 ounces), scrubbed and cut into ¼-inch cubes (about 2 cups)
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves (or ¼ teaspoon dried)
2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves (add baby spinach if you want more greenery)
1½ teaspoons table salt
Ground black pepper
Stand the corn on end. Using a chef’s knife, cut the kernels from four ears of corn (you should have about three cups); transfer the kernels to a medium bowl and set aside. Grate the kernels from the remaining six ears using the large-hole side of a box grater, then firmly scrape any pulp remaining on the cobs with the back of the knife. (You should have two generous cups of grated corn and pulp.)
Sauté the bacon in a Dutch oven or large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, turning the bacon with tongs until the pieces are crisp and dark golden brown, about 10 minutes. Remove the bacon from the pan. Reduce the heat to low, stir in the butter and onions, and cook until the onions are softened, about 12 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, no more than one minute. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, about two minutes. Whisking constantly, gradually add the chicken stock.
Add the potatoes, bay leaf, thyme, milk, grated corn and pulp, and reserved bacon; bring it all to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the potatoes are almost tender, eight to 10 minutes. Add the reserved corn kernels and heavy cream and return to simmer; simmer until the corn kernels are tender yet still slightly crunchy, about five minutes longer. Discard the bay leaf. Stir in the parsley, salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately. Makes approximately two quarts, serving six.
*If using frozen kernels, divide them into two and three cups and proceed with the recipe
Photo Courtesy of Louisville Magazine