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Monday, July 27, 2009

Soul Food II

I don’t think it’s my intent for Middle Passages to morph into a food blog, but today we need to talk about corn chowder--specifically the one I made for last Wednesday’s dinner over which I am still salivating even though we got two meals out of it.

I promise that it’s finished, but if you recall, last Wednesday I celebrated my birthday. The air hung full of grey clouds, heavy and humid and both my husband and my daughter were working. In fact, Tim commutes to a next door state and with all-day meetings scheduled, we could anticipate a late arrival home. Bless my two buddies though, they planned ahead and by Tuesday evening, nine-inch Devil’s Food layers from a mix baked by Tim cooled on the counter; the middle shelf of the fridge hosted chocolate ganache for frosting that Meghann had prepared. No complaints.

In our house we celebrate birthdays with a special dinner—at a restaurant when they occur on weekends, with take-out during the week, or occasionally over a favorite dish prepared by yours truly. Last week, Tim’s schedule combined with our fiscal belt-tightening meant that neither take-out nor go-out appeared on the evening’s menu. As a result, early in the morning, I opened the fridge to determine what simple supper I could create from inexpensive leftovers.

With the cool air blasting, I eyeballed a thawed chicken breast soaking in its own pink juices with a niggling worry. On a fifty-first birthday during which you happen to be in reinvention mode, a refrigerator-clearing supper has potential to trigger a mild depression. In an immediate transition, I contemplating how lovely it would be if we had left-over corn-on-the cob in the fridge that I could turn into a chowder. There could be no birthday gift as sensorial or rewarding as eating my way back to childhood, and corn chowder, that bastion of New England cheap eats, has comforting roots snaking all the way back to the dinner table of my youth. Alas, there was no corn in our fridge. The idea of it however, teased me through most of the morning until the arrival of a special-delivery breakthrough thought: “If I’m making my own birthday dinner, I’m choosing the menu too.”

Off I went to the store. For you gourmets, by all means be purists and use just-picked corn if you need to, but I cheated. After discovering a package of frozen corn in our freezer, it was less expensive to buy additional creamed corn then the number of fresh ears required. Generally when I make corn chowder I wing it. Wednesday’s creation arrived after tweeking this Epicurious suggestion--my edited and calorie-enhanced version resides below. Happily I grew up in the whole milk era, so although arguably richer, my results came pretty darn close to the way Mom used to serve it.

Warning: this is all about starch and fat, dairy and solace--to get a few additional food groups in I suggest you pair it with a salad. It was my birthday though; I served it with Baked Stuffed Clams (see below).

Happy Birthday Corn Chowder

• 1/2 pound (about 8 slices) bacon, coarsely chopped
• 1 6-ounce russet potato, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
• 1 cup chopped onion
• 3/4 cup chopped celery
• 2 small bay leaves
• 2 cups half and half
• 1 10-ounce package frozen corn kernels
• 2 14 3/4-ounce can creamed corn
• 1 14 3/4-ounce can low-salt chicken broth
• 1/2 cup chopped celery leaves
• 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Sauté bacon in heavy large pot over medium-high heat until crisp and brown. Using slotted spoon, transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons drippings from pot. Add potato, onion, celery, and bay leaves to pot. Sauté over medium-high heat until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add half and half, frozen corn kernels, creamed corn, and chicken broth and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer chowder until potato is tender, about 15 minutes. Add celery leaves, 1/8 teaspoon cayenne, and bacon. Simmer chowder uncovered until flavors blend, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Clams Casino*
* (My family doesn’t like whole clams, so I buy chopped clams and mix them with the veggies, flavored bread crumbs to taste, and a little olive oil before stuffing the reserved shells.)

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