November 30, 2011

Easy Corn Chowder; or "How to Eat Canned Potatoes and Like It."

Someday, I will be a successful food blogger.  Between the combination of ad revenue, promotions at my so called "real" job, and writing articles for print I will buy myself Kitchenaid stand mixers with dough hooks and paddles.  I will have a walk-in pantry with multiple types of flour, present recipes for dry-aged beef with truffles, and write reviews of restaurants that actually require reservations and shirts that don't profess allegiance to sports teams or alcoholism.

But right now, "Catfish's Dishes" is exactly what it claims to be in the tag line: something between Iron Chef and a package of ramen.  Today we'll be leaning a bit closer to the latter than the former.  See, in the non-idealized world where I am a custodian and not a culinary expert, sometimes money simply runs out.  Boy breaks his glasses playing soccer, or Girl leaves her coat at school.  Wife misses a day at work.  Thanksgiving dinner gets out of hand in regards to largess.  Any number of things could happen to break the budget.  While I can respect the growing sentiment that Occupy should realize how much better they have it than people in third world countries, Wife and I and pretty much everyone I know ARE the 99%.  We have school debt and a non-existent savings account and live paycheck to paycheck.  That hasn't stopped me from trying to follow my passion, but it does mean that I can't always talk about the roast I made.  In fact, as we juggled Wife's shortened hours (from the holiday) and increased visitation from Girl (likewise,) I found myself in a position I used to be in frequently, and hope to avoid whenever possible.

That is to say, in line at a food pantry.  It wasn't that long ago (summer session, to be exact,) that I was writing about church food boxes nostalgically in a "Bum Survival Guide" for my English 101 class.  A decade ago, before Wife was my wife and I had any concept of children, being penniless was an adventure.  Now it's just uncomfortable.  Somehow, it was much easier to accept the charity of others when I didn't need it as badly, but I actually felt ill when the volunteer helping me at the Salvation Army turned out to be someone I knew socially.  That's part of why I am writing this, so that if any of my readers find themselves in a similar situation maybe they won't feel as bad; as long as you are striving to do better for yourself there is no shame in getting behind on the bills or having a rough month.  The other reason (to the joy, I'm sure, of those of you who have saved your money more wisely) is because I actually ended up with a pretty good dinner out of the whole experience, a spicy corn chowder that tastes far better than the ingredients that went into it.

One of the biggest problems of getting food from an organization like Salvation Army or The Vineyard or whatever group serves your community-apart from the aforementioned pride issue-is that the food people are giving aways typically isn't the best food.  You could say, quite literally, that beggars can't be choosers.  It's vegetables and meat that are about to expire, and often dairy that already has.  It's large, corn syrup frosted cakes that I feel obligated to take but don't want to bring anywhere near my family.  It's lots of canned food, and most of it is the same-green beans, peas, and corn.  It's mystery items.  It's not hard to find a place for most of it, but sometimes you have to work a bit harder to find a use for what they give you.

Take, for instance, canned potatoes.  It isn't that they are inedible; it's that potatoes aren't hard to come by, especially in Idaho.  Green beans in a can pale in flavor to those fresh from a farm, but depending on the season they can be pricey.  Fresh corn just disappears.  I can get cheap potatoes year round without that canned taste.  No matter; the charitable organization helping my family out this holiday season gave me several.  While it was tempting to put them into my garage until I could "recycle" them the next time my employer held a canned food drive, I decided that I should will them into a good meal.  After all, the last time I had to resort to food boxes, I developed a reputation for being able to get the most out of them.  No reason to allow the success's of the last decade to cripple that skill.

The most off-putting part of a canned potato is its texture.  They are a little bland, yes, but it's the weird softness that makes them unappealing.  But potatoes are often soft in soups and stews.  With that as my backdrop, I began to look at what else I had available and went to work.
Bacon makes a great base for chowder, but can be replaced with butter.
In the end, the ingredients in my house indicated a corn chowder of sorts was in order.  I took five strips of pepper bacon (one of only three non-spice ingredients not sourced from my church food box or someones garden) and sliced them into matchstick sized pieces, then began to heat them in a large pot over medium heat.  While they sizzled away, I grabbed a new knife and my veggie cutting board, and got to work chopping an onion.  I used an entire yellow onion-often, when soup recipes call for an onion to be used, I will only use half, but since I was going to be using canned corn as well as the potatoes, I wanted to make sure that a lot of flavor could be transferred over from fresh ingredients.  I also minced a fresh jalapeno from Mother-in-Law's garden, although it wasn't needed yet.
When the bacon began to get nice and crisp, I removed it from the pot with a slotted spoon and set it aside, leaving the bacon grease bubbling away in anticipation of my onions.  (A vegetarian version of this recipe would probably want to use 1/4 stick of butter.)  I dumped them in along with one clove of garlic, which I added via a garlic press to save time.  You'll want to stir frequently here, both to get up the little browned bits from the bacon as well as to keep the garlic from burning.  When the onions begin to turn translucent and soft, open up two cans of corn, reserving the liquid from one, and dump them into the pot along with the jalapeno, two cans of potatoes (drained and rinsed,) 2 tsp. of salt, 2 tsp. of cumin, and 1 tsp. of black pepper.  You'll want to let these cook together for about five minutes.  Being canned, the corn and potatoes don't need the time for any other reason than to let the flavors marry, but that is definitely reason enough. 

Once everything in the pot has had time to get acquainted, add a carton (thirty-two ounces) of your favorite chicken or vegetable broth, the reserved corn liquid, and a tablespoon of lemon juice.  The juice from the can of corn is only there to help emphasize the flavor that is lost by using canned ingredients, so if you are able to make this with fresh corn it won't be missed.  Bring everything to a boil, then add 1 cup of heavy cream and three cups of sharp cheddar, grated.  When I was making this I was stuck with the ingredients I had on hand, and used milk in place of the cream, but I've made similar soups enough times to know that if you have a choice here you'll want to go with the cream.  That being said, it's a textural thing, not a taste thing, and if you only have milk to work with everything will still be fine.  Cook until the cheese is completely melted, then reduce to a simmer.  Let everything cook together for ten minutes or until it has reduced by about the tip of a finger, then salt and pepper to taste.  Serve topped with the reserved bacon and/or a sprinkling of minced fresh cilantro and crusty bread.  While this isn't the world's best corn chowder, it is a cheap and tasty way to make the most out of sub-optimal ingredients, and that can often be a far more valuable asset to the home cook.     

No comments:

Post a Comment