Crack Corn Chowder: Or, Almost All I Really Needed to Know (About Cooking) I Learned in High School
My friend “Marley” had 11 brothers and sisters, and when you are one of a dozen kids, you learn early how to cook for a crowd. It was Marley who showed me, in my first year of high school, how to make soup: a creamy potage of potatoes, carrots, celery and—because we were California hippie kids—chunks of tofu. We’d hang out at her boyfriend’s apartment, take a few bong hits (another thing Marley taught me), and cook for our friends and ourselves. Marley was a couple years older, popular and wickedly funny, but the thing that impressed me most was that she knew how to turn a bunch of vegetables into dinner.
If I tasted it now, I’d probably think that soup was awful. It had no stock, no meat and no seasonings aside from some soy sauce. At the time, though, I thought it was brilliant—and it wasn’t just because we had the munchies. It was because we’d made it ourselves: There was no recipe, just a couple of kids and a pile of produce in the kitchen.
I thought about this recently as I was making a pot of chicken and corn chowder. There was no recipe, just me in the kitchen—but this time with more than two decades of soup making under my belt.
When the chowder was finished, my husband quickly slurped down a bowl and said, “This is like crack.”
The man is convinced that I am a soup genius. We’ve even talked about me opening an underground soup restaurant. If my day job doesn’t work out, I may just become the Walter White of soup making.
Of course, I doubt there would be much of a market (underground or otherwise) since soup is one of the easiest things to make at home. Even a stoned teenager can do it without a recipe.
Unlike a roast or a cake, soup allows you to tinker and fiddle around until you get it right. Too thick or too salty? Add more liquid. Lacking in body? Add some cream or coconut milk or puree a bit of the soup and add it back to the pot. If the flavor is dull, squeeze in some lemon or add a splash of vinegar or a bit of wine. Try miso or soy sauce for umami. Salt generously and don’t be afraid to add some heat. (I like chipotle for its smoky flavor, but cayenne works nicely with just about every ingredient you can imagine.)
If the thought of cooking without a recipe scares you, don’t worry. Soup is your friend.
Last fall I had dinner with chef Edward Lee. In addition to being a terrifically talented cook, Lee is a writer of recipes and food stories (he a regular contributor to Organic Gardening magazine and his cookbook, Smoke & Pickles, is a favorite in my house.) Over dinner, Lee observed that recipes in today’s cookbooks are overly detailed. Not only does this presume incompetence in the kitchen, it elicits it—cooking is reduced to a formula rather than practiced as an art.
Of course, you might think, “Well, that’s easy for Edward Lee, food genius that he is, to say, but what about the rest of us? Don’t we need those details?” I hear you. As a food magazine editor I know that chefs’ recipes are notoriously poorly written (though not Ed Lee’s, of course). It’s a rare chef who can translate their art for the home cook. (That’s what we editors get paid for, after all.)
Still, though, I’m on Edward’s side on this one. If you look through your grandparents’ recipe file, you’ll likely find recipes that contain nothing more than lists of ingredients or a few scrawled instructions, no notation of the desired temperature or whether to use all-purpose, whole wheat or pastry flour. For people that cook every day, like many of our grandparents (or at least our grandmothers) did, most cooking doesn’t require a formula. It’s about putting everyday knowledge—the tartness of your apples, the right amount of oil to fry a bit of dough golden brown—into practice.
I adore cookbooks. At any given moment, I’m more likely to be reading a cookbook than the latest bestselling novel. And I’m the first to admit that I’ve learned a lot from recipes over the years. But I’m increasingly inclined to see the insistence on spelling out each and every detail in recipes as intensifying anxiety in the kitchen rather than reducing it. Instead of democratizing cooking (with a proper recipe, everyone can cook!), our overreliance on detailed instructions makes us feel incompetent, apprehensive about mistakes, and uncertain about trusting our own judgment.
How many disasters in your kitchen have been caused by blind faith in a recipe? I’ve lost count myself, but my husband jokes that he knows exactly when I’ve followed a recipe: dinner isn’t as good as usual.
You know that niggling feeling in your gut when you think, “Isn’t that too much salt?” or, “The recipe said 20 minutes, but the cake is still wobbly in the middle.” For goodness sake, listen to it! Good cooking means paying attention to your intuition and adjusting the recipe to your ingredients, your cookware, your stove and, most of all, your taste.
The more experience you have in the kitchen, the easier it is to see recipes as a set of suggestions or general guidelines rather than a set of rules you must follow. Learning to cook is like growing up: You need to listen to what other people tell you, but figure it out for yourself.
I lost touch with Marley long ago. But I still know that you don’t have to follow all the rules. In the end, what you create is usually better if you don’t.
Here’s how I made my Crack Corn Chowder. Now make it your own!
I chopped up a bunch of onions and a beautiful red bell pepper (totally out of season here in the Midwest, but irresistible). Then I cubed some nice yellow potatoes from my favorite produce stall at the South Bend Farmer’s Market. I sautéed the onions and peppers in a big mess of butter with some freshly ground cumin and salt. While they were cooking, I simmered some bone-in chicken breasts and wings with some leftover celery and more salt. When I had a nice broth, I removed the chicken to let it cool. Then I strained the broth into the vegetables and let it thicken up a bit. I tossed in a cup or two of frozen sweet corn. After that, I added some cream (ok, a lot of cream) and the shredded chicken and some chipotle powder. I finished it with a few leaves of cilantro on each bowl.
Try it. I think you’ll find it’s addictive.