I’m trying to think of similes for sweet corn, and oddly, I keep coming up with sort of scary violent images – the ticking time bomb, the radioactively decaying, the unstable isotope of the food world. Which is funny because, in my experience at least, sweet corn is a pretty peaceable non-intimidating substance, except maybe for its annoying habit of leaving bits of skin wedged so firmly between your teeth you pull a muscle in your tongue trying to dislodge it (floss is for sissies). But, the thing with corn is, the moment you pick it, the sugars in its kernel begin converting to starches instead. Like a lollipop gradually shape-shifting into a raw potato. And very few people want to suck on a raw potato. So, eating sweet corn pits you in a race against time. Can you buy it and eat it close enough to the time it was picked to ensure that perfect, transcendent experience of munching summer, right off the cob? (As Garrison Keilor has said, “sex is good, but not as good as fresh sweet corn.”)
When you buy farmer’s market corn during peak season, it would be a shame to doctor it more than lightly boiling or grilling it and adding a bit of butter and salt (and in case you’re looking, the very best sample of this in the whole world is the corn on the cob at the Minnesota State Fair, though I hear the title is being challenged by elotes, the street corn in Mexico. However, this has a squirt of lime, red chile sauce, and some crumbled cheese on it, which is obviously sacrilege, or at least kind of cheating, because even a cardboard tube would taste good with those things on it, and we’re trying to highlight the corn here, right?)
Of course if, say, you pick up your load of newly picked sweet corn and then promptly up and leave for 10 days, off to somewhere on the entirely opposite side of the country, when you come back you may find your corn more than a little in need of a pick me up. At least, ours was. I feel like corn has sort of three ages and stages of cooking potential (not counting garbage/compost pile). First is the corn on the cob stage. That one’s easy. A couple days past this, when the corn kernels are still pretty sweet but losing a little of their plump juiciness it enters the stage of “cut off the cob and add to something like a salad or pasta, incorporate into the batter of fritters, flapjacks, or corn bread, or (my personal favorite) sautee with other summer vegetables (like summer squash, tomatoes, beans) and herbs”. Stage three, when the kernels have gone a bit mealy, is soup.
Our corn, when we got back from our most recent bout of traveling was definitively in stage three. But, we had a handful of potatoes, an onion, and a slightly geriatric but still good lime (and a freezer perennially full of local meat, yum yum) waiting to welcome us home as well. So, soup was obviously meant to be.
Now, corn is good with lots of creamy, cheesy flavors, and with most herbs. But, it is splendid with Latin American flavors. Maybe it’s because it’s originally from that part of the world and the demi-god of flavor combinations and the demi-goddess of native plants were in cahoots and did some very good planning. Anyway, I decided that I needed to invest in a jalapeno, an avocado and some cilantro to spice the soup up and some cooked chicken to add protein. From there I just followed standard soup protocol – cook onion, add vegetables and spices, add stock, cook until vegetables are tender. But, at the last minute, I decided to partially blend the soup because blending some of the potatoes and corn releases their starches and makes the soup creamy, without having to actually add cream (not that there is anything wrong with adding cream!). I added the cilantro and cooked chicken at the last minute so that they wouldn’t get overcooked. Oh, and if you’re one of those people who can’t abide cilantro, you could certainly replace it with basil and it would still be delicious.
Finally, mashing the avocado with lime juice and dolloping it onto the bowls of soup adds the silky luxuriousness of avocado (aka ambrosia) and the tang of lime. It transforms the soup from a rich (but not overly so) and piquant corn chowder to a fiesta of flavors (sorry, that might be one of the most overused phrases ever when applied to Latin American food, but whatever, it works). If you like, you could add a little chopped tomato and sour cream too, to really top it off right.
Cilantro Corn Soup with Avocado and Lime (serves about 6)
- 5-6 cobs of corn
- 5-6 medium potatoes
- 1 large yellow onion
- 1 jalapeno (or use about a tsp. of red pepper flakes)
- several Tbs. of butter
- 4 cups of vegetable or chicken stock
- about 2 cups cooked chicken, shredded or chopped
- 2 big handfuls of chopped cilantro (or basil)
- 1 tsp. salt plus more to taste
- ground black pepper to taste
- 1 avocado
- the juice from 1 lime (a couple of tablespoons)
- Use a knife to cut the kernels from the corncobs (this can be a kind of messy endeavor with kernels flying everywhere. I’d recommend standing the cobs up in a big baking pan and cutting the kernels off so they fall into the pan.)
- Dice the onion and the potatoes (smaller pieces make for faster cooking and easier blending). Remove the seeds from the jalapeno and dice.
- Heat the butter in a large soup pot, then add the onion, potatoes and jalapeno. Stir to coat with butter and cook for about 10 minutes until the onion has softened. Stir in the corn and the salt, then stir in the stock. Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and allow to cook until the potatoes are soft (about 10-15 minutes).
- Using an immersion blender, blend up the soup so that some of the potatoes and corn are blended but some of the chunks remain. Or, transfer the soup in batches to a blender and blend about ½-3/4 of it, leaving the rest unblended. Then transfer it back to the pot, bring to a simmer again and add the cilantro and chicken. Taste and add salt and pepper to suit your taste.
- In a bowl, mash the avocado and lime juice together to form a delicious green mush. Serve soup into bowls and top each with a large plop of mashed avocado. If desired garnish with additional cilantro, tomato and/or sour cream.