Not everything I create gets straight to the written page as I intended. There is always an editor between me and my readership, most often (by a vast margin) for the best. My latest adventure, The Almond Milk Cookbook, was the book from hell in the editing phase, although I have to say that on balance, I’m glad I didn’t throw in the towel and run screaming from the room. I did behave badly, but I didn’t bolt. I’m sure all authors have had similar days, and this is in no way a slur or any sort of disrespect towards editors. My editor is a wonderful human being and I’m very fond of her. I’ll spare everyone any details of my discontent, except to say that some compromises were made (and compromise on quality is a personal as well as professional affront to any chef worth his/her salt). I didn’t take it well.
Now that I’ve gotten that bit said and behind me, let me explain why I began this way. The recipe I’m about to share, “Zucchini Corn Chowder,” has been, shall we say, monkeyed with on its way from table to print. One of the many hats my editor wears is the “don’t make it look ridiculously complicated or difficult for normal human beings chapeau,” and she wears it with stoic tenacity. Many of my normal human readers would put my books back on the bookstore shelf after a brief glance if not for her intercession. So it (apparently) must be. In this particular instance, the necessary compromise was so slight I didn’t even catch it until after the book was in print. However, the loss in terms of depth of flavor and unusual spark is catastrophic (to a cook like me). “No one will ever know” is the last thing I ever want to hear, because of course I’m someone, I bloody well know, and that’s not the bloody point, is it?
The nice thing about having a blog is that I can correct some of these calumnious affronts to my craft (I guess I haven’t really let it all go yet, please bear with me), which I’m about to do here. When you understand how deep the injury was in this case, well, let’s say you wouldn’t waste a bandaid on it if it was sustained by a two-year-old. But I regress. On with it.
The idea for this dish came to me like many in the book, with a free-association, bobbing-for-apples sort of brainstorm that eventually leads to a flash of genuine inspiration. I would think of dishes that contain milk—or are creamy in their final state—and inspect them for possible adaptation. Then I would either leave them in their traditional form, or reinvent them in some aspect. This one was a no-brainer, because corn chowder is just, well, corn chowder, a comfort food that (1) needs no interpretation, and (2) begs for interpretation. I simply had to alter it. You cooks know exactly what I’m talking about. Now, the mere addition of zucchini might seem like sufficient invention for a lot of people (apparently my editor included, although she did allow the roasted peppers and smoked paprika). But I had a vision for this dish, and it involved grilled corn (which is why the roasted pepper and smoked paprika were invited in the first place).
My editor was right; her version is much simpler, and far less off-putting to the average home cook who might be wondering what to make for dinner. For that, I’m thankful. But I still want to correct the omission, just in case anyone out there would like to know what this soup want meant to be. What the kitchen gods whispered to me in a moment of inspired reverie. So here it is:
Zucchini Corn Chowder
Makes 4 servings
Squash and corn are not only made for each other; in the American Southwest, they’re often grown together (along with beans). Their flavors and textures meld nicely, while magically remaining distinct. This is definitely not your familiar old corn chowder, although it should hit all the familiar notes.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, diced
3 medium zucchini, diced
2 small potatoes, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon unrefined sea salt
2 cups water or vegetable broth
3 cups fresh or frozen white corn kernels
3 cups almond milk
½ teaspoon hot Spanish smoked paprika, plus more for garnish
2 ears white corn, shucked and cornsilk removed
1 roasted red pepper, diced
8 scallions, thinly sliced
Put the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat and add the onion. Cook, stirring often, until the onion softens, about 5 minutes. Add the potato, zucchini, garlic, and salt, and continue stirring until the vegetables begin to stick, about 5 minutes. Add the broth and stir well. Increase the heat to high, bring to a boil, and add the corn kernels. Return to a boil, adjust the heat to maintain a simmer, and cook until the liquid is absorbed and the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Scoop out about half the vegetables and put them in a blender. Add the almond milk and smoked paprika, and process until smooth. Return to the pot.
While the vegetables are cooking, preheat an outdoor grill.* Put the ears of corn on the grill and cook, turning as needed to char evenly on all sides. Remove and wrap in aluminum foil. When cool enough to handle, cut off the kernels. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the kernels and add the rest to the soup, stirring well.
Reserve 2 tablespoons of the diced roasted peppers, and add the rest to the soup, stirring thoroughly. Reheat the soup over medium heat, stirring often. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the scallions and stir the rest into the hot soup, just before serving.
Ladle the soup into bowls. Garnish with the reserved grilled corn, roasted peppers, sliced scallions, and a few pinches of smoked paprika. Serve at once.
*If you don’t have a grill, but have a gas stove, you can “grill” the corn by placing the shucked ears over a high flame, using the grate as a grill. Turn often to achieve an even charring.
The difference? You’ll think me so petty, persnickety and peevish when I tell you. The extra two ears of corn were not grilled in the version that went to the printer. Seriously. That’s really the only difference. And it’s true; no one would have known or cared. But I care, because like most chefs, I don’t just want to feed the hunger—I want to crush it. I want to stop people mid-spoonful. I want their taste buds to send confused messages to the brain, unsure of what just happened. I want my food to surprise even as it comforts, to entertain utterly, to transport the diner to new places while, unnoticed and almost irrelevantly, basic nourishment takes place in the background. And I want the average home cook to be empowered by my recipes to do the exact same thing for their friends. In most cases, the difference is slight, the extra step minor, the actual added labor ridiculously easy. As I’m fond of saying, it’s really not that far from ordinary to extraordinary.