Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Creamy Corn Soup

"Want to go to Bristol?" I asked Jason as I was finishing the clean up after the fish class.

"What's in Bristol?" asked Jason. "And where is Bristol anyway?"

"One of my students just raved about a restaurant called Persimmon." I told him. "It's in Bristol. And Bristol is in Rhode Island. And that's only one and a half hours away. We can make this our little get-away while Sammy is visiting Grandparents."

Jason was skeptical. "Since when are you taking restaurant suggestions from students?" he asked. He had a point. I am very particular when it comes to food and too cynical to jump on every cool new restaurant band wagon. Especially now that we eat out very rarely, we like to stick to the tried and true places. Just because one of our friends, students, or co-workers raves about a restaurant doesn't mean it's worth a try.

"But Jessica is different," I told Jason. "She cooks skate wing. She orders soup for dessert!" Yes, Jessica was really unlike most of my students. Most describe their fish cooking experience as "I bake salmon sometimes," so the fact that Jessica not only ventured beyond salmon on her own, but tried an unusual creature like a skate wing was very impressive. When the Fish class was over, Jessica stuck around to ask if I teach a soup class. I don't, but told her that I'd be happy to answer her questions. That's how I learned about Persimmon. It was Jessica's favorite restaurant, and while everything there was good, she described the soups as being simply life-changing. These soups were so good that she ended up ordering a second portion of the soup instead of dessert on two separate occasions. She tried reproducing them at home, but they didn't come out nearly as good as at Persimmon. Jessica was very specific about the problems. The soup just wasn't smooth and silky no matter how long she tried to puree it. I knew at that moment that Jessica was a woman after my own heart.

That silky texture you often get in restaurant soups can be accomplished at home in the matter of minutes just by straining the soup through a sieve. Straining is viewed by home cooked (including me by the way) as a bit of a fuss. But whenever I do it, I am always surprised how quick and easy it is and I wonder why I don't do it more often. The key to straining is to mush the soup around in a circular motion with the back of the ladle. This pushes it through the sieve in a couple of minutes. Or sure, you then have to wash the strainer, the ladle, and the extra bowl or pot into which you strained the soup. But realistically, the whole process only takes an extra 5-10 minutes with dishes and all. That's not such a high price to pay for a perfectly silky soup. The equipment is the other bottleneck. How many people have a chinois (a.k.a. China cap) used in professional kitchens to strain soups? I don't have one either, but I have a wonderful 8 inch OXO strainer that works like a champ. It's cheaper and much more compact than a chinois, and since it gets the job done, I never got around to buying one of those cool conical constructions the professionals use.

So, did we get to Persimmon? We certainly did. We went to Bristol in the end of July and had a meal that was as good as I imagined it to be. Jessica was right on the money about the soups. The soup that day was creamy corn with chanterelles. Jason ordered it for an appetizer and after stealing a few spoonfuls from him, I knew what I was having for dessert.

Creamy Corn Soup (hot or cold)

Here is my attempt to reproduce this lovely soup at home. I know that most of the corn this season is already gone, but I wanted to write down this recipe for the next summer.

Straining is very important for this soup since the skin of the kernels doesn't puree well, so only attempt it if you have a strainer.

Serves 6

For the stock:
6 ears of corn
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
1 yellow onion, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
1 celery stick, cut into 1 inch chunks
1 bay leaf
1 tsp whole black pepper corns
5-6 stems of fresh parsley, leaves removed
3-4 thyme sprigs
2/3 cup dry white wine
8 cups water

To finish the soup:
2 Tbsp butter
1 cup finely diced shallots (about 5 shallots 1.5 inches in diameter)
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt to taste
  1. Cut the kernels off the cobs and scrape the cobs with the dull side of the knife to remove as much of the pulp as possible. Reserve the kernels and the pulp for later use.
  2. Place the cobs in a 4-6 quart stock pot, add the rest of the stock ingredients, cover, and bring to a boil. Uncover, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 40 minutes. Strain the stock through a colander or a sieve into a large bowl or pot.
  3. Wipe out the stock pot and return to medium-low heat. Add butter, shallots, and a generous pinch of salt. Cook stirring occasionally until shallots are tender and golden, 10-15 minutes.
  4. Add the corn kernels with their pulp and the stock holding back the sediment at the bottom of the stock bowl. Season to taste with salt (I use about 2 Tbsp Diamond Crystal Kosher, which equals 1 Tbsp table salt). Bring to a simmer over high heat. Turn down the heat to medium-low and simmer until kernels are tender, but not mushy, about 20 minutes. Take off heat and cool slightly.
  5. Strain out and reserve 1 cup of liquid. Puree the rest of the soup in a blender for about 3 minutes until smooth. Stir in the heavy cream. Strain the soup through a strainer into a large pot or bowl. Stir the soup in the strainer in circles with the back of the ladle to help it go down. If the soup came out too thick to your liking, add the reserved liquid. Taste and add more salt if needed. Can be served hot or cold.
Tips on washing the strainer: As soon as you finish using the strainer, rinse it upside down under the kitchen faucet to remove most of the stuff stuck in it. Then take it to the bathroom and rinse it upside down under the bath tub faucet. It's much stronger than your kitchen one and will dislodge whatever is stuck faster. The reason you rinse under the kitchen faucet first is because you probably don't want big chunks of corn in your bath tub.

P.S. I apologize for the bad picture. I made this soup when we were packing for vacation on the Cape and didn't have time to make it photogenic. My corn was white and the soup came out kind of pale. In an attempt to make it look better, I drizzled it with olive oil. Kids, don't try this at home. Just eat this soup straight. It might not look like much, but it tastes like liquid gold (particularly when consumed on the porch overlooking Wellfleet harbor).


Nadira said...

Awww, thank you! I can't wait to try this. Now if you have some tips on cleaning the sieve afterward...

I usually rise it upside down under running water to dislodge most of the pulp. I can also get some more of it out by swishing it up and down in a full sink, but even that tends to recapture some of the floating pulp like a butterfly net, and it wastes a lot of water.

Can you recommend a better method?

Helen said...

To make cleaning the sieve easier, do it immediately after use or soak it to prevent bits from drying up and clogging the mesh. Upside down works well, and I usually change my faucet to a shower spray instead of a solid stream. If you have that option, it will dislodge all the little bits in no time.


Anonymous said...

Would this be an appropriate application of a food mill instead of a strainer?

I have a mill and don't have a good strainer, talk about having my priorities out of order.. :)

Anonymous said...

Sounds fantastic. Thanks for this. Quick question for clarification. The stock ingredients are cob without the kernels, pepper, bay leaf and thyme? Correct? Thanks much in advance.

Anonymous said...

oh and also the carrots, celery and onion and water...

Helen said...

Hi Graham,

I've never tried putting a soup through a food mill since I don't own one. It's definitely worth a try if you have a disk with really tiny holes. You still have to puree it first. But I am not sure if the food mills come with holes as small as strainers.

Anonymous: yes, the ingredients you listed are the ones you make the stock with. Basically everything except for the butter, shallots, corn kernels and cream.


Unknown said...

We've been doing a different version of a corn soup.

Cut off the kernels and scrape the juice off the cob, raw. Puree. Strain. (We actually use nylon hop bags we buy from a brewing supply store; they are beyond fabulous.) Then gently warm in a double boiler. If you're not going to eat it right away, heat it thoroughly to pasteurize - we've discovered that corn juice is the Most Perishable Substance in the World.

This goes great with a swirl of basil oil, or with some lime zest (pretty, too).

Anonymous said...

Yummy! Can't wait to try that! sounds spectacular!

Anonymous said...

I have made this twice. Once was heaven, the other ... The difference? I second time I followed the direction (step 4) to add salt (2 tbsp Kosher salt). I used two TSP which was too much.

Also, a tip to make this easier (one less straining) is to reserve the vegetable stock (to adjust thickness at the end) rather than straining after cooking the kernels.

Also, you can omit the cream for a lighter soup. It is really not necessary.

And use a chinois, it is very fast and cleanup is much easier than a sieve.