It's a late-summer evening in the eastern foothills of Washington's Cascade Mountains. The light is fading, smoke from the bonfire seeps lazily through the trees that frame the lake and its pesky midges, someone offers me a bowl of soup. Thick and earthy, the bowl is a stir-up of sweetcorn and hot milk, with a lingering smokiness from dried and roasted chillies. As I'm in the habit of boiling my corn on the cob and smothering it with melted butter and coarse pepper, the marriage of sweetcorn and smoke comes as something of a surprise.
Corn and smoke is a good one. Think heads of sweetcorn on the grill, their husks blackened by the coals; a thick knubby chowder with ragged lumps of smoked bacon; a stew of smoked haddock flecked with golden kernels. Since that meal, I now find myself drawn to ways of introducing smoky flavours into the proceedings.
It's probably just sod's law that I chose this year, of all years, to plant sweetcorn. Heads of corn need a good long summer if they are to ripen, not the 90 days of pouring rain we have had. Still, they looked the part, standing firm if not tall, with some particularly prolific courgettes planted underneath. Sadly, the hoped-for pan of corn and bacon chowder has come courtesy of the greengrocer instead. I have a favourite recipe that involves thyme sprigs and single cream. The backbone is smoked bacon, whose tarry notes mingle effectively with the richness of the cream and the sweetness of the corn. So more of a threesome than a marriage, really.
Cooking over charcoal will bring smoky notes to your corn in waves - you can set up an impromptu affair with a few coals in a roasting tin, the ears of corn, still in their husks, suspended on a wire rack. (If you soak the corn in their husks in cold water first, they shouldn't burn.) So will adding large dried chillies such as chipotle (tie a string to the stalk and tether it to the pan handle - you can hoick it out when it's done its stuff). The most surprising double act in this vein is corn and smoked haddock. It makes sense, of course. You can add corn to a basic haddock chowder recipe, or vice versa. If you choose the latter, add the haddock about 10 minutes before you intend to eat it.
Sweetcorn and bacon chowder
This is very much a main-course soup, not at all suitable as a first course. It has sweetness, depth and body, and is even better the next day. There is no reason why you can't make it with frozen corn, other than that it seems a shame not to take advantage of the cheap cobs around at the moment. Serves 6.
2 plump salad onions or shallots
300g smoked streaky bacon
the leaves of 6 bushy sprigs of thyme
4 corn cobs
1.5 litres water
150ml (or less) single cream
a good handful of parsley
Melt the butter in a deep, heavy-based pan, then peel and roughly slice the onions. Add them to the hot butter and let them soften over a low heat. Cut the bacon into thick chunks, roughly the size of a postage stamp, tearing off the rind as you go. You could quite reasonably use what some butchers sell off as bacon bits for this, checking them over for rind and bone first. Whatever, let them fry with the onion, stirring them only occasionally so a thin layer of golden goo adheres to the pan. It will give a deep, smoky bacon flavour to the soup.
Pull the leaves from the thyme sprigs and stir them in. Strip the kernels from the corn cobs. I do this by holding the cob upright on a board, one hand at the top, then slicing down with a large knife. You will get about 100g per cob. Tip the corn into the pan. Pour 1.5 litres of water over the sizzling bacon and corn, turn up the heat and bring it to the boil. You may find you get a small amount of golden froth on top, like you do with dried beans, and I think you should probably remove this. As the soup boils, turn down the heat so that the corn rolls steadily in the simmering water. Don't be tempted to add salt - the bacon will serve for that.
After 30 minutes, scoop out a little of the corn and check it for tenderness. It should be soft, and of course sweet, with a distinct smoky flavour to it. You can let it simmer a while longer if it doesn't seem ready.
Blitz half of the soup in a blender or food processor, not quite to a smooth puree but well on the way, then tip it back into the pot with the unprocessed soup. Stir in the cream and the chopped parsley leaves, and bring to the boil. Taste and season with black pepper and, carefully, with salt.
Like most soups, this benefits from being served piping hot.
Sheer bliss with baked ham! Enough for 4 as a side dish.
4 cobs of sweetcorn
100ml whipping cream
Cut the kernels from the sweetcorn cobs with a large knife, then let them cook slowly over a low heat with the butter. Press hard against the stripped cobs with the knife to extract as much juice as you can. After 3 or 4 minutes the kernels will start to soften, their colour will brighten.
Pour in the cream, season with salt and black pepper and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and leave to simmer for a few minutes before serving.
These little corn cakes are good with bacon for a light supper. I also find them welcomed as a vegetarian main course, in which case they need a bright, knife-sharp salsa to go with them. Try tomato, coriander, avocado and lime juice. Makes 6.
2 heads of sweetcorn
one egg yolk
1 tbsp self-raising flour
one egg white
about 30g butter
With a large knife, scrape the kernels from the cobs of sweetcorn into a large bowl. Stir in the lightly beaten egg yolk, the flour, a good pinch of salt and some black pepper. Beat the egg white till the peaks are stiff but not dry. Fold the egg white into the corn mixture. Heat the butter in a large, non-stick frying pan over a high heat. Drop in the batter, a heaped tablespoon at a time. Turn the heat down to a moderate flame and cook until the cakes are golden brown on the bottom, about 2 to 3 minutes. Turn once, without patting the fritters down, and cook the second side until browned. They are fragile, so turn them gently but quickly. Serve immediately.