While I don’t believe for a minute that the coldest winter Samuel Clemens ever spent was a summer in San Francisco (he lived on the East Coast for most of his life, for god’s sake) the weather here is undeniably fickle. I began writing this post the Sunday before last, after a week of days that required long pants and shoes, and evenings spent bundled in hats, scarves and jackets. Then I panicked in Tuesday’s 98º heat, wishing I’d made gazpacho to blog (and eat) instead. Luckily, I procrastinated long enough that the daily highs are firmly back in the mid-sixties, and sitting under a warm laptop in sweats, writing lovingly about a rich soup makes more sense than sitting before an open window praying for a breeze and cursing our lack of an electric fan.
I despised the fog when I first moved to SF, and would silently curse my LA friend who’d complain over the phone in December, ‘It was so cold today, I couldn’t even wear my flip-flops!’ I would stare longingly at my closetful of neglected skirts, dresses and sandals from my days in SoCal, and resignedly pull on a pair of jeans. Again. And too often I’d get only to freeze my butt off after getting tricked into thinking it was warm out simply because the sun was shining.
A friend who moved here from warmer climates lamented one day, ‘I used to be fashionable,’ referring to the fact that in San Francisco one must always dress in layers to prevent overheating/hypothermia in the rapidly changing weather conditions. (I wish I could use that excuse.)
After six years of chilly Julys and Augusts, however, I’ve come to appreciate the fog, and think of it as a friend who I miss when when it’s gone. I enjoy not having to worry about shaving my legs too often, or feeling guilty about buying yet another sweater.
Or soup-making weather. This rich, creamy chowder captures the flavors of summery sweet corn and spicy chilies in a hearty soup welcome during even the coldest of ‘winters.’ I adapted the recipe from one of my faves, Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Soups. The original, which I make every summer when the corn supply peaks, uses thyme and parsley, and a swirl of smoked paprika and melted butter streaks the finished soup. The copious amounts of poblanos that have been arriving in our box compelled me to swap the herbs for cilantro and add a hefty dose of lime juice and some crispy tortilla strips for a bit of zip.
Like any hearty ‘winter’ soup, this one’s a good keeper, so there’s no need to panic at a rogue heat wave. It will be freezing again before you know it; if you live in San Francisco, that is.
Sweet Corn and Roasted Poblano Chowder
Adapted from Deborah Madison’s White Corn Chowder with a Smokey Swirl, from her book Vegetable Soups
Makes 6 – 8 servings
Since poblanos can vary greatly in spiciness, taste them before deciding how much to add. Save the trimmings from all the vegetables, except the chilies and garlic; the rest, including the corn cobs, go into a pot to make a quick stock while you chop the vegetables.
2 – 3 poblanos
6 ears of corn, shucked
2 bay leaves
6 sprigs of cilantro, plus chopped leaves for garnish
2 large yellow onions, finely diced
1 celery rib or 1/4 bulb fennel, finely diced, trimmings reserved
4 medium yellow potatoes
1 medium carrot, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup half and half (or a combination of whole milk and heavy cream)
juice of 2 limes
2 corn tortillas
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
crème fraiche, for garnish
Roast the poblanos over an open flame, or under a broiler, turning occasionally until blackened and blistered all over. Let cool until handleable, then, wearing gloves if your skin is sensitive to capsicum, peel and seed the chilies. Chop finely and set aside.
In a large pot, bring 6 cups of water to a boil while you begin to prep the veg. Hold a corncob vertically in a large bowl and carefully cut the kernels off, letting them fall into the bowl. Reverse the knife and scrape the remaining corn goodness off the cob. Repeat with the remaining corn. Break the cobs in half and add them to the pot of water, along with the bay leaves, cilantro sprigs, onion and celery or fennel trimmings, potato and carrot peels. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes, then strain into a large bowl or measuring cup. You should have 4 cups of liquid; add some water if this is not the case. Discard the vegetable detritus.
While the stock simmers, melt together the butter and olive oil in another large pot over medium heat. Add the onions and saute until translucent, 5 – 10 minutes, then add the celery or fennel, potatoes, carrots, garlic and paprika. Saute, stirring occasionally, 5 more minutes, then add 1/2 cup of water and the salt. Cover and cook over medium heat until most of the water is absorbed, 10 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for a few minutes. Add the stock, the half and half, the chilies (to taste) and all but 1 cup of the corn kernels and scrapings. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the remaining corn kernels and cook for 1 more minute, then turn off the heat. Add the lime juice to taste, and additional salt or chilies, if you like.
To make the tortilla strips, cut the tortillas into approximately 1/4 x 2″ strips. Heat the oil over medium heat in a large skillet and add the tortilla strips and a few pinches of salt, stirring over medium-low heat until the tortillas are golden and somewhat crisp (they will continue to crisp as they cool.)
Ladle the soup into bowls and serve with a dollop of crème fraiche, a sprinkle of cilantro, and some tortilla strips.