Recession Recipes: Veggie Corn Chowder

In an effort to encourage folks to whip up some decent eats during this economic downturn, here’s an improvised recipe for vegetable corn chowder. It will probably set you back about eight bucks or so at the market (assuming you already have flour, butter, and olive oil in the kitchen, like most folks). But this will feed about four people. It goes down well with corn bread and Heineken. And the wonderful thing about this chowder is that it’s quite filling. Deceptively so.

First off, you’ll need to make yourself some fresh vegetable stock. Because trust me on this. The chowder will matter more if you have really kickass vegetable stock. You can alternatively use water. But that’s not really much fun. So here’s a quick rundown of how to make the stock. If you’re a lazy bastard, you can skip all this. But I have a sense that you’re going to want to go the distance. Because good chowder is worth it. And since you’re going to so much trouble here to make veggie corn chowder from scratch, what’s wrong with another hour devoted to the stock?

Stock ingredients: One onion, three stalks of celery, three bigass carrots (I mean, you need circumference here), ten cloves of garlic (or one big bulb), ten or so peppercorns, a bay leaf, and water (of course!).

1. Chop up all the produce. Now the segments should be substantially sized. Because keep in mind that you’re essentially filtering the flavor of the vegetables when you’re cooking this sucker. So you don’t want to chop the produce into crazed little bits. (If, like me, you love chopping shit up with knives, well, you can save your mad dicing skills for the chowder, which we’ll get to in a minute.) That goes for the garlic too. You should just be using the stripped cloves. You’re going to want carrots of about an inch or so in thickness. And you’ll only really need to halve the onions. Anyway, throw all this into a big pot (probably the same pot you’ll be using later for the chowder). Then throw in the peppercorns (could be ten, could be fifteen, don’t stress over it) and the bay leaf.

2. Fill it all up with water. You’re going to want all the vegetables to be under the agua. Once you’ve done that, fire up the burner. Once this all boils, let it simmer. Then let it sit for about an hour. Try not to go too much beyond an hour. I mean, if you’ve got a DVD you need to watch while the stock is doing its thing, make sure it’s an episode of The Wire or something (assuming you can confine your viewing experience to one episode at a time). Not some two hour movie. Because if you let the stock go beyond this, you’re going to have stock that isn’t optimal for the chowder.

3. Alright! It’s been an hour. You’ve been uplifted by some important television episode from David Simon. You’re angry at the world, probably less so than David Simon. Or maybe you’re just enthralled. Anyway, whatever your emotional state, you’re now ready to drain your stock! Now if you’ve made noodles, this is essentially noodles in reverse, in that you’re disposing of the veggies and keeping the water, which as its glorious yellowish green tint will indicate, has transformed into stock! Now be careful. You’re going to want to preserve as much of the stock as you can. Don’t beat yourself up if you spill any of this into the sink. Just make sure you get at least a cup or two of this stuff into a measuring cup or a Tupperware bowl or something.

4. Seal the stock. Refrigerate. Voila! You’re ready to make some kickass veggie corn chowder tomorrow. But you’re going to need to make sure this refrigerates for at least a few hours. Ideally, you should probably make the veggie stock the night before. And keep this in mind. If you have no intention of using the stock this week, you should probably put it into the freezer. It lasts a week in a fridge and about a month in a freezer.

Okay, so now we’re onto the corn chowder.

First off, here’s what you’re going to need.

— Two potatoes (peel and dice into small bits)
— Three or four bigass carrots (peeled and chopped; now don’t go crazy like you did with the stock; you need about 1/3 inch chunks here)
— One onion (diced into very small parts; go with a Spanish onion if you can, but I must warn you; Spanish onions are a pain in the ass in the tears department; nevertheless, they give the chowder the kind of pep that a regular yellow or white onion can’t quite do; so it’s worth crying over)
— Two thirds of a yellow bell pepper (chopped and diced)
— Three stalks of broccoli (chopped; try cutting these into thin slivers or florets; be wary of the stems; they are sometimes a pain in the ass)
— Three cloves of garlic (chopped, pressed, or what have you)
— A little bit of red bell pepper (you’ll want to grate this)
— Your veggie stock or, for the lazy bastards, water
— Some flour (about a tablespoon or two; you can eyeball this)
— 2 cups of milk (you’ll want to heat this up; it’s okay if you pop it in the microwave for about two minutes)
— Some butter and olive oil
— A can of corn kernels (or, if you’re really hard-core and you’re in a place where corn is cheap and in-season, you can use about two or three fresh ears and scrape off the kernels after you boil it)
— Fresh cilantro (okay, if you need to save money, if you’ve got some ground cilantro in your spice rack and it’s between the $2 they sometimes charge for fresh cilantro and getting fresh veggies for the stock, I’d opt for the veggies; really, you need good stock to make this work)

Now that seems like a lot of work. But once you have everything prepped, this will all get done in about an hour.

1. So you’ve got your big pot. You’re going to want to put in a dab (roughly half a tablespoon) of butter and the same amount of olive oil. Make sure you get the entire bottom of the pot coated with this wonderful concoction. Because you’re going to be zipping around later.

2. Into the pot: the potatoes, the onions, the garlic, the carrots, the ground bell pepper, the diced yellow bell pepper. Saute all this for about five minutes or so. (Don’t worry about the hardness of the potatoes. Because when you add everything else, they will cook quite marvelously.)

3. Stir in the flour after you’ve sauteed this vegetable mix well. (Don’t worry. We’re about to get to the corn and broccoli. Hold your horses.)

4. Here’s the part where you’ll need to have some care. You’re going to gradually add the warm milk and the stock (or water). Do this in increments. A little milk, a little stock, stir. Don’t go crazy because you’re going to get some bumps if you throw it all in at once. Keep doing this until you’ve exhausted all the milk. Now you’ll likely have leftover stock. Here’s the thing. If you’re a stickler for thickness, your chowder’s going to appear thicker than it really is. So you’re going to want to have a thicker chowder here while you’re letting all this boil. But be sure to use all the milk! Or else you won’t have a decent chowder!

5. Stir everything around. Keep doing this until it comes to a boil. Again, the constituency of the chowder is the most important. So you’re going to want to make sure you stir this.

6. While the chowder is congealing, add the salt, pepper, and the cilantro and stir it in.

7. When the chowder boils, reduce to low heat. You can let this simmer for about 30 minutes. And while you’re waiting, make some fresh corn bread if you like.

While the chowder is simmering, be sure to stir it every so often. You’ll then start to see what I was talking about in Step 4. The chowder is thinner than you expected. But it’s thick enough because it should be coming together.

Voila! Vegetable corn chowder! And it’s also very good for a potluck.

Now if you’re eating alone, I wouldn’t recommend this recipe. Because it is a lot of chowder. Unless you’re the sort who enjoys eating the same thing four nights in a row. But it’s not bad for a couple who likes leftovers the next day. And if you have two kids, I think that they’re likely to go crazy over this chowder with some corn bread. Certainly I have witnessed a few extraordinary reactions to this chowder. It is quite healthy. And if you’re a carnivorous type wooing a vegetarian, well, I assure you that this is a hearty enough chowder to fill your stomach.

Eat the Rich

One reads Laura Miller’s review of Mark Bittman’s Food Matters with unwavering chagrin. Here is a review of a clearly ideological book, a review written by a humorless bourgeois reviewer who boasts about cooking “the vast majority of my meals from scratch,” but who does not wish to dissipate from the self-righteous upper-class foodie twits who refuse to comprehend the ineluctable associations between food and class. In Miller’s view, cooking is considered by Americans either “an elite hobby” or “an esoteric mystery,” and Bittman’s book exists as some halfway house (or, perhaps more appropriately phrased, a luxury rehab clinic) transforming eating into a Pollan-inspired prescribed formula for “better living,” with cooking becoming something accomplished with little to no effort. The snarky “Yummers!” with which Miller attempts to level the ostensible country bumpkins could just as easily be applied to Miller’s unchecked conformism.

What has not occurred to Miller, who is here an eager and unquestioning acolyte of Bittman, is that cooking is not necessarily about subscribing to a handbook, but very much about the act of discovering tasty combinations in the process. (And incidentally, a Lancashire hotpot, contrary to Miller’s anti-casserole prejudices, ain’t necessarily a bad thing in a pinch and does get people excited at a potluck.) More important than any of this is that cooking is a practical act in which one must feed a family. When there’s less than $100 in the weekly food budget to feed a family of four, sacrifices become necessary. But here’s the good news: from limitations emerge spontaneity and innovation. The bad news is that the Bittmans and the Millers of our world see fit to capitalize on these underground innovations without acknowledgment and more than a little bit of douchery.

Let’s consider some examples.

Impoverished 18th century Italians began adding tomato to their flat bread, others perfected the formula, and pizza took off. And if you want to go back further in time to find the flat bread prototype, you can find this passage in Book VII of the Aeneid:

Their homely fare dispatch’d, the hungry band
Invade their trenchers next, and soon devour,
To mend the scanty meal, their cakes of flour.
Ascanius this observ’d, and smiling said:
“See, we devour the plates on which we fed.”

Sushi emerged as a method of preserving fish. In China, fermented rice was wrapped around a salted piece of fish. This was known as nare-sushi. And the original idea was that you would crack open the rice bubble and enjoy yourself a nice piece of preserved fish. Then some culinary innovators in Japan realized that you could enjoy eating the rice as well and came up with seisei-sushi.

John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, held his corpulent title on an innovation that emerged because Montagu was too much of a lazy bastard to leave the gaming table. The man aspired to chow down while playing cards. We’ll never know whether or not some hapless stiff in the kitchen was threatened with being sacked if he did not satisfy the Earl’s gustatory wishes. But one thing remains certain throughout history: behind every culinary decree and resultant innovation is the desperate eleventh-hour maneuvering of a terrified and often underpaid chef.

I am not against the pursuit of good food. Anyone can be a foodie if they apply some sensible chops to the task. I am on record singing the praises of MFK Fisher, whose excellent volume, How to Cook a Wolf, considered how to love food in dire times. (And let us likewise commend Jeffrey Steingarten for having the courage and curiosity to try just about everything.) But I am against the idea of being so blinded by your gourmet pursuits that you cannot possibly consider that there’s some good eating to be had with the common folk. Miller is notably bothered by the idea of balsamic vinegar being available at places like Applebee’s, and the way she marinates in her seeming “superiority” by eating in a fast food restaurant “once a year, and only when I’m ravenous and trapped with no other alternative” is disgraceful. More egregious is her failure to consider the above-mentioned hypothetical family of four. Why is the ubiquity of balsamic vinegar a bad thing if people enjoy it? Like anything along the wondrous trajectory of human development, food shifts from its origins, whether they be lower-class or upper-class. But why should we be discriminatory about it? If there is good food, should we not let other people know about it? Do such efforts not augment the taste buds of everyone? In fact, don’t we have a certain obligation to improve upon food as we cook if we can? (There’s that spontaneity in the kitchen again.)

It has also never occurred to the Bittmans and Millers of our world that there may indeed some virtue in vices, and that attempting to maintain a svelte physique merely through healthy eating is only half the problem. (There’s this little thing called exercise.)

But there’s also something more irksome here. If you’re calling for “responsible eating” and you’re not considering the origins, needs, spending patterns, and eating habits of everyday people, you’re a smug simpleton of the highest order if you think your casual condescension translates into revolution.