It has been soup weather in Boston of late.
Biting cold may be the province of stew, but intermittent rain and chilly evenings leave me in the mood for soup with bread and butter, perhaps with a wedge of cheese and crisp apple slices to follow. Now that I've mostly finished stockpiling fruit for the winter, my trips to the farmer's market are an exercise in finding vegetables to turn into soup.
It is dangerously easy to make bad soup. Thanks to institutional dining services, I have eaten corn chowder so alarmingly thick, a spoon would stand up in it. (Or rather, I ladled it into a bowl, and didn't actually consume it once I realized that it was the approximate consistency of wallpaper paste.) And yet the foundation of a bad soup and a good soup are frequently one and the same: the cooked butter-and-flour mixture, used for thickening liquids, that the French call roux.
Roux combined with milk produces béchamel; roux combined with white stock produces vélouté. Seafood chowders frequently begin with béchamel, but vélouté keeps perfect company with fresh vegetables. (The word is French for "velvety,"and it's a lovely description of the smooth, rich texture of the finished soup.)
Sorrel produces a tart, lemony broth. Carrots, seasoned with ginger and nutmeg, make for a bright, fresh puree. Cauliflower gives a finished product with a gentle nuttiness and pale, creamy color. And if you combine roux with both stock and milk, (which, to be honest, I have no idea what the French have termed), and get hold of some fresh corn before it disappears from the farmer's market for the year, you can make corn chowder that will put your college dining hall to shame.
(Not Your College Dining Hall's) Fresh Corn Chowder
Recipe based on instructions given in the chapter on roux in Michael Ruhlman's "Ratio."
(Serves one, with leftovers.)
Take two or three ears of fresh corn, shuck them, and cut the kernels away from the cob. Place in a bowl and set aside.
Melt one tablespoon of butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add one-and-a-half tablespoons of flour, and cook, stirring steadily, until the mixture starts to bubble and colors very slightly. Add one small yellow onion, finely diced, along with a generous pinch of salt. Cook until it turns soft, but does not color.
Stir in one cup of chicken or vegetable stock (if vegetable, make sure it's pale and mild in flavor - not too much carrot) and half a cup of milk. Bring to a low simmer and stir until the mixture begins to thicken.
Add the corn. Cook at a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the corn is tender. Add more stock if the mixture starts to look too thick. Check for salt, adjust to taste. The mixture can be cooled and blended to produce a smooth soup, but I've always thought of chowder as having whole bits in it, so I prefer to serve it as is.
Ladle into a bowl. Garnish with diced red pepper and a sprig of basil, and a swirl of cream, if you like.
Note: If reheating, do so over low heat, and do not bring to a boil.