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Corn Chowder With Mexican Flavors

We're crossing over that great divide between summer and fall. Of course, judging from the heat wave we've been having the past few days, you'd never know it, but we're headed that way. Honest.

I don't really have any qualms about the end of summer. I know I'm supposed to be sad and nostalgic for all the great things I did this summer and in summers past, but the truly great thing about summer is that it comes and goes. If it were perpetual, no one would care a fig for it in the first place.

Am I mourning the end of the good tomatoes? No. I'll miss them for awhile, but I'll appreciate them all the more next year. That's one huge benefit of eating seasonally--having the best of all the produce but not all at once. When strawberries come in, I gorge on strawberries. By the time melons start rolling in, I don't think, "gee, I wish I had some strawberries right about now." I'm far too distracted by great big chunks of juicy melon to think about strawberries.

Another thing I've learned from eating seasonally is that while seasons are marked on a specific date on the calendar, vegetables do not abide by the rules of mankind. Summer squashes don't shrivel and die because the calendar says it's autumn. And so there are many vegetables and fruits that straddle the seasons. We may be seeing the first of the butternuts and apples, but we are still lucky enough to find green beans and corn as well.

I have a special affection for corn, as I've mentioned in previous posts. It's one of those foods that lives in my memory, and to me it is one of the quintessential flavors of summer. But its season is not limited in the way that my memory is, and so we are still noshing on it regularly. But as the days cool and shorten, our desires run less to corn on the cob and more towards warming, heartier fare.

I always forget about corn chowder. It's easy enough to forget, probably because we've all had it at some point or other, but made with canned or frozen corn. When corn is still in season, though, corn chowder isn't just something bland to fill your belly. The sweet, juicy pop of fresh corn in a simple chowder makes for a soup that is at once fortifying and refreshing. If you go to the trouble of using the whole ear--stalks and cobs--to infuse the milk, you're really in for something special.

Serve this soup with plenty of chopped fresh herbs and a sprinkle of salty cheese--such as feta or cotija. We make this soup without the suggested bacon simply because we really want the corn flavor to outshine all other flavors, but if the siren song of smoked meats is too much for you to bear, feel free to baconize your chowder.

Other articles you might enjoy: Summer Corn Salad, Salsa Fresca With Corn, Corn Fritters

Corn Chowder With Mexican Flavors
Makes about 6 cups

If using bacon, cook, stirring, in a soup pot over medium-low heat until beginning to crisp, 10 to 15 minutes:
           (4 slices bacon, chopped)
Leaving the bacon in the pan, spoon off all but 2 tablespoons of fat. If not using bacon, add to the hot pan:
           2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
Add and cook, stirring, until tender and slightly browned, 10 to 15 minutes:
           1 small onion, chopped
           2 medium celery ribs, diced

Meanwhile remove the kernels from:
           6 small ears corn
Set the kernels aside and add the cobs and husks to the pot, along with:
           4 1/2 cups milk
           2 medium potatoes, diced
           1 bay leaf
           (1 dried guajillo chile)

Bring the milk almost to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, until the potatoes are tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the cobs and husks. Stir in the reserved corn kernels, with:
           1 1/2 teaspoons salt
           1/2 teaspoon white or black pepper

Simmer gently until the corn is tender, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Remove the bay leaf and chile, if using. With a slotted spoon, remove 1 1/2 cups solids from the soup and purée until smooth. Return to the soup and add:
           1 tablespoon butter
Let stand until the butter is melted, then stir and serve, topped with any or all of the following:
           Crumbled feta or cotija cheese
           Diced poblano or jalapeño peppers
           Chopped cilantro and/or oregano
           Chopped green onions

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