Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Carefully Designed Butternut Squash and Corn Chowder



It's a beautiful January thaw type of day, and I'm throwing together a corn chowder as Ian takes the big lunchtime nap. In my search for vegetables in the fridge, I found a package of frozen butternut squash and decided to add that as a twist to the chowder. Both corn and butternut squash have a sweetness, and work well with other vegetables. Any soup with "butternut" or "chowder" in the name usually catch my eye, so why not combine the two, I thought.

As I'm scraping the corn cobs at the bright sunlit kitchen counter, I'm thinking about how cooking and creating recipes is a lot like fashion design. In my pre-baby life as a designer, I used this take-a-classic-and-add-a-twist approach regularly. It's the cornerstone concept for most mass retail brands. I realize now that is also the basis for most of my recipes. I research what others have done, take the parts I like and leave out the ones I don't care for or don't have the resources for. I add in a little something different here and there to make it mine, but stay very close to the safety of a basic recipe. I hate to tell you, but that's really all fashion design is, too. Especially working within the parameters set by buyers and execs - it's all about creating something just new enough, just exciting enough, but safe, familiar and saleable to the masses.

There's also a sort of formula we use in fashion to inspire new ideas. This Thing + That Thing = New Thing. It can be conceptual: Skateboarding + Frank Gehry buildings = indie looks with structured curving details or any other number of ideas it gives you. It can be literal: Stripes + Hibiscus flowers = new prints for boardshorts. I tend to use the same formulas in cooking. For example, an idea may be sparked by combining two larger concepts like French lentil stews + Middle-Eastern ingredients and spices. Or it might be as simple as taking two vegetables and wondering how to combine them successfully in any form, such as Eggplant + Coconut, or in this case Corn + Butternut Squash. Apparently my creative skills, however applied, come down to these basic processes. No wonder I do what I do, eh?

Every now and then, I do step out and try something experimental. Much easier to do in my kitchen than the office, but either way it's bound to happen. In the office, I probably did this about 10-15% of the time, and management probably considered it wasted energy. But it's generally understood by good bosses that creatives have to exert that energy in order to function happily and productively the other 90% of the time. I'm not sure why I only experiment wildly this same 10% while cooking at home. Maybe it's ingrained in me - self-discipline. Maybe it's just the limitation of time. 

I'm still adjusting to the new single-nap schedule, so today is definitely a 90% kind of day. I only get one shot at cooking. To borrow a term from the days of careful line-planning with limited skus on a deadline - today I need this soup to be a "winner". Saleable to the masses, safe, secure, but slightly unique. Something just right for the weather, just exciting enough to want to eat the whole ginormous pot without waste. I think it will be perfect for lunch today, and to reheat for my lunch guest tomorrow. 

And this completes my thoughts for the day, as we near the end of naptime. We're going to be on Ian time, any minute now...


Butternut Squash Corn Chowder
8 servings, 1 hour

4T Butter (or sub with Earth Balance or other vegan margarine)
1 C onions, diced
1 T garlic, minced
1 T flour (omit or use arrowroot powder for gluten-free)
½ tsp dried thyme
2 C potatoes, peeled and diced
2 C butternut squash, (fresh or frozen) cubed
1 ½ C corn (fresh or frozen) (3 small cobs)
1 C celery, chopped
½ C carrots, chopped
4 C no-chicken or vegetable stock
1 C whole milk or cream (omit or use cashew cream for vegan)
1/8 tsp cayenne powder
salt & pepper

¼ C chives, finely chopped for garnish (optional)

1. Melt butter over medium heat in a stockpot. Add onions and cook (without browning), about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook 3 minutes. Sprinkle with flour and stir to dissolve.

2. Add thyme, potatoes, squash, corn, celery, carrots and stock. Bring to a boil , then lower to a simmer and cook 20-30 minutes until potatoes and squash are tender.

*note – the squash may “disappear” into the broth as it breaks down.  If you are using frozen or pre-cooked squash, and want to see chunks in your bowl, you may want to add it near the end of cooking.

3.  For a thicker chowder, partially blend the soup with an immersion blender, or by pulsing 2 cups of it in a blender.  Over low heat, stir and the milk and season with cayenne, salt and pepper to taste. Heat through and garnish with chives. Serve with bread, biscuits or oyster crackers.



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