Let the Corn Season Begin!
Corn season comes to us like summertime itself. At first, there are hints of bright sunshine, and then, finally, days and weeks of warm, golden pleasure.
Depending on where you live and what your weather has been like this spring, you may already be seeing fresh sweet corn in your local farmers' markets. By the time summer officially arrives a month from now, fresh locally grown corn will be available almost everywhere, not only in farmers' markets but also at farm stands and supermarkets alike. And it will stay with us through summer's end and into early fall.
Of course, modern shipping means you can find fresh sweet corn in markets almost always these days. And new hybrids that emphasize sweet kernels mean that such corn won't turn starchy-tasting while it waits to get from the stalk to the table.
But the best-tasting corn will always be ears that have been picked recently and rushed from the farm to your kitchen. You'll know it's good if you buy it from a reputable source. (I always love the corn I get from Chino Farms in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., not far from San Diego; and I'm sure there are great sources not far from you, too.)
Whatever your source might be, check each ear before buying to make sure that it's fresh. The husks should look bright, crisp, and moist; the corn silk underneath pale golden; the kernels plump and shiny; and the stem end freshly cut.
With corn like that, you'll be ready to make one of my favorite summer recipes: Sweet Corn and Bacon Soup with Jalapeno Cream. It's a perfect balance of flavors, the corn's sweetness complemented by the smokiness and saltiness of the bacon. (Look for organic applewood-smoked bacon, if you can find it, or just use your own favorite supermarket brand.) To give the soup an intriguing consistency, I grate some of the corn to release its thick, creamy juices, and I stir in some whole sauteed kernels to add crunch to every spoonful.
By the way, my corn chowder is also as delicious chilled as it is hot. If you serve the soup cold, be sure to taste it after chilling and adjust the seasonings if necessary, as cold tends to mute the flavors a bit.
Whether I serve it hot or cold, for a delicious final touch, I top each bowlful at with a spoonful of the jalapeno cream, a mixture of minced fresh chilies, lightly whipped cream, sour cream, lemon juice, and fresh cilantro. This adds a lively spark of flavor. You may want to leave it out for younger guests at your table. My two young sons are very happy without it, and demand the soup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
SWEET CORN CHOWDER WITH BACON AND JALAPENO CREAM
Set a box grater in a wide, shallow bowl. Holding each ear of corn firmly and carefully keeping your fingers well clear of the grater's surface, coarsely grate the kernels from 6 ears; you should have about 2 cups of grated corn.
10 medium ears of corn, husks and silk removed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces lean bacon, finely diced
1 organic celery rib, finely diced
1/2 cup finely diced onion
1/2 cup finely diced organic yellow bell pepper
3 cups whole milk
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
Pinch cayenne pepper
1/4 cup sour cream
1 jalapeno chili, halved, stemmed, seeded, and minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves, plus extra whole leaves for garnish
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Freshly ground white pepper
Hold a sharp knife in your dominant hand. With the other hand, hold the stem end of one of the remaining 4 ears of corn, and balance its other end on a cutting board with the ear at a 45-degree angle. Cutting very carefully down and away, with the knife almost parallel to the ear, cut off the kernels several rows at a time, rotating the ear slightly after each cut. Repeat with the remaining ears. You should have about 2 cups of whole kernels.
In a large saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Add the bacon, celery, onion, and bell pepper. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have softened, about 10 minutes. Stir in the grated corn, the milk, and 1 cup of the heavy cream, raise the heat, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook uncovered, stirring often, until the soup has thickened, about 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and the cayenne pepper and keep warm.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the corn kernels and saute, stirring occasionally, until they are lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Season with a little salt. Stir the cooked corn into the soup and keep warm.
In a blender, whip the remaining 1/2 cup of heavy cream to soft peaks, about 20 seconds. Add the sour cream, jalapeno, chopped cilantro, and lemon juice and blend until thick. Season with salt and white pepper.
Ladle the soup into bowls. Add a generous dollop of jalapeno cream, garnish with cilantro leaves, and serve immediately.
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