September 21, 2010

Corn and Zucchini Chowder with Ham and Fresh Thyme

Filed under: Soups — Tags: , — by Carla


It’s already beginning. That subtle yet noticeable change is in the air. Summer is waning and fall is moving in to take its place. By about this time I’ve usually grown bored with summer meals of cookouts and salads. I actually look forward to fall because now is the time to start thinking about making soup.

Aren’t you excited to unpack the sweaters, light the fire pits and cook up food that warms from the inside out?  My favorite early fall soup is not only hearty but it makes the most of the last gasp of the corn and zucchini season. Though corn can be a little starchy this time of year for eating off the cob, those starches and sugars add up to a delicious bowl of chowder rich with milk and cream, chunks of green zucchini and potatoes, fresh thyme from the herb patch and pink cubes of salty, smoky ham. The finishing touch is a whisper of spicy cayenne over the top of each serving. You’re going to love it. Especially with a nice loaf of crusty ciabatta bread and a glass of chilled Riesling.

To make this chowder even more luscious, I like to smash it up a little bit once it’s cooked to make it thicker and creamier. To accomplish this task I employ one of my favorite kitchen gadgets, the immersion blender. I love this little device because I can stick one end of it into the pot on the stove and pulse it a few times to just blend the soup enough to give it the texture I’m looking for…still chunky but definitely thicker. It’s a cool tool to have if you make a lot of soup and much easier than blending a portion of the soup in a processor. For a lower tech version you can also mash it up a bit with a potato masher. It isn’t quite as much fun, but it gets the job done.


It seems like such a long time ago that Meredith and I were in the trenches writing 300 Sensational Soups, our fourth book in so many years. That was a lot of soup to cook, but one of the most healthy and satisfactory of meal times for our families. No, we didn’t lose weight (it could have been the great bread and dipping oils that accompanied most of these meals) but our families were undeniably happily fed. One of the best things about a pot of soup is the leftovers which  freeze up for a no hassle future meal. My dinner challenged adult children used to love raiding the freezer whenever they’d stop by. It even became a little competitive (Soup Wars), but that’s another story.  So, go on and say good-bye to summer by making a pot of this heavenly chowder which is apparently worth fighting over.

Kitchen Counter Point: To make this soup even cornier (and what could be bad about that?), I like to add the de-kerneled naked cobs to the soup while it cooks. It is amazing how much corn essence ekes out of the cobs after a short cook. Plus, you can pat yourself on the back for extracting extra flavor from something that most cooks would have just tossed in the compost heap.

Serves 6

1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
10 grinds of pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 ears corn, husked and corn cut from the cobs, reserving cobs
2 large zucchini, cut into 1-inch dice
1 large potato, cut into 1-inch dice
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, stemmed and chopped
2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, chopped
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 1/2 cups cooked ham, diced
1 cup half-and-half or more if desired
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, plus more for sprinkling
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon sherry or rice vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat a large soup pot over medium-high heat and melt the butter. When the butter is hot, add the onion, salt and pepper and sauté for 2 or 3 minutes or until it begins to soften. Add the garlic and cook 1 more minute or until the garlic is fragrant.

Add the corn, zucchini, potato, thyme and parsley and cook for another 3 minutes or until the vegetables begin to soften. Add the chicken stock, ham and corn cobs and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the soup, uncovered, until the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes. Remove the corn cobs and discard them.

Pulse the soup with an immersion blender or pulse 1/3 of the soup in a blender or food processor and return it to the pot. You can also just mash the soup in the pot a few times with a potato masher to thicken it up.

Add the half-and-half, cayenne, nutmeg and vinegar and reheat over medium heat if necessary. Avoid boiling as the cream will curdle. Season to taste with more salt and pepper if desired. Ladle into heated bowls and garnish with a dusting of cayenne pepper on top if you like a little more bite to your chowder.

Variation: This chowder recipe just begs to be messed with, so if you have some sausage lying around, go ahead and substitute it for the ham. Just cook it up with the  onions. Likewise with the herbs. Chives, oregano and basil all work with the corn and I wouldn’t mind a little red bell pepper sautéed up with the onions for a little color. The point is to use what is freshest at the market or what you have in the fridge that needs to be used up.

September 8, 2010

The Perfect BBLTA

Filed under: Sandwiches — by Carla



“Too few people understand a really good sandwich.”
James Beard

Ask me how many sandwiches I’ve made in my life and I couldn’t tell you. As a mother of three (two of them very large boys), I admit to a chronic case of sandwich boredom. Though I do always spread the mayo, ketchup, jelly, peanut butter evenly over the bread slices so that each bite contains the requisite amount of filling, I haven’t  spent as much time thinking about the perfect sandwich as I have about the perfect chocolate chip cookie or beef bourguignon. But the scales have been brushed from my eyes and I find myself in love…nay, besotted with the perfect BBLTA. That’s a basil, bacon, lettuce, tomato and avocado sandwich, sigh.

It all began with a  really fine August tomato from a local grower. It demanded center stage, no supporting actor status as in a salad, but focused star quality. I happened to have a fresh loaf of sourdough from my local bakery, a ripe avocado on the kitchen counter, a pound of bacon and the remnants of a head of iceberg lettuce in the fridge. Slowly it all started to come together. Tart, sour, crispy, rich, salty and crunchy, oh yeah.

I pulled 4 slices of bacon from the slab and cooked them up quickly in my go-to cast iron skillet. I love to cook bacon in that skillet. There’s something about coating it in bacon grease that just makes me happy. While the bacon cooled on a paper towel lined plate, I sliced the sourdough into thin, less than 1/2-inch slices. I think this is a very important step because if the bread is too thick 1) it can be hard to wrap your mouth around it. 2) the crispy toasted edges are more likely to shred the roof of your mouth, and 3) the bread dilutes the flavors of the delicious inside of the sandwich. So, I advise you to slice your bread once you get it home with a serrated bread knife, preferably offset (see picture). Toast the bread until lightly golden.


OK, now for the fun part. Cut the avocado in half lengthwise and twist it apart. Remove the pit by gently tapping it with the sharp edge of a knife, twist and pry it loose. Carefully remove the pit from the knife and dispose of it. Peel and thinly slice the avocado. Rinse a few leaves of the crunchy lettuce and fresh basil and pat them dry. Slice the tomato thinly.

Now we are at the crossroads of the perfect BBLTA. Does one use store bought mayonnaise on a sandwich of such transcendent purity? That, my friends, is a question that only you can answer. For those of you willing to go the distance, I’ve supplied a simple recipe for mayo which whips up in only a minute or two. It is so delicious, you may never go back to the jarred variety. Since we are talking about a perfect sandwich here, I advise you to give it a try. It will be so much easier to make than you think.

Now we’re in the homestretch. Spread the lightly toasted bread slices with a generous slathering of mayo and lay down the basil leaves, covering one slice. Top the basil with the bacon, avocado and tomato. Salt and pepper the tomato (fleur de sel and coarse ground black pepper is best) then top with the lettuce. Top with the other slice of bread so that the mayo side is down. The mayo acts as glue to hold the slippery lettuce side of the sandwich together on one side and the mayo holds the slippery basil on the other. The avocado is between the bacon and tomato because it will mash somewhat and its richness tastes best between the salty bacon and zippy tomato. These are important points if you don’t want the insides of your sandwich squishing out when you bite down on it.

Press lightly and cut the perfect BBLTA in half with the serrated knife. Share with your best friend or favorite child.

Kitchen Counter Point: There are a few points that that lead to mayonnaise success. 1) Start with pasteurized eggs to be sure that they are safe to eat in a raw state. Pasteurized eggs have gone through a heating process that kills bacteria but still leaves the yolks and whites liquid. 2) Take the egg out of the fridge about 30 minutes before using it so that it loses its chill. Warmer eggs absorb the oil and emulsify better than cold. 3) All spouts are not created equal. Because you have to pour the oil through the feed tube very slowly, some measuring cups will dribble and you will have vegetable oil on your counter instead of in your mayo. I find that the more pointed the spout, the better it pours.


Makes about 1 3/4 cups

2 pasteurized egg yolks at room temperature (save the whites in the fridge for up to 1 week)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pinch cayenne
1 1/2 cups grapeseed oil or safflower oil

Place the egg yolks, lemon juice, mustard, salt, pepper and cayenne in the bowl of a food processor or blender and pulse a few times. Measure the oil in a measuring cup with a good spout that pours cleanly and doesn’t dribble (see Kitchen Counter Point). Turn on the machine and pour the oil very slowly in a fine drizzle into the work bowl through the feed tube. It should take a few minutes to pour all the oil into the bowl. After about half the oil is added the mayo should begin to thicken and emulsify.  If for some reason the mixture doesn’t emulsify, just remove it from the work bowl, add another egg yolk to the bowl and reintroduce the mixture slowly through the feed tube again. Taste and adjust the seasoning with more salt and pepper and thin with more lemon juice or water if desired. The mayonnaise keeps for up to 5 days refrigerated. Feel free to use the leftover mayo in tuna salad, pasta salad, potato salad, etc.