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corn chowder, in essence

Ingredients for Corn Chowder
Thick, deliciously creamy, each hearty spoonful chock-full of fresh-tasting corn…what’s not to love about homemade corn chowder?

Add a lightly-dressed green salad, a piece of crusty bread, and Voila! The perfect chilly early autumn eve supper, inspiring some etymological contemplation:

Are the contents of this bowl considered chowder, a soup, or a stew?

Bowl of creamy vegetarian corn chowder

Maybe it's all three. 

Soup, a dish made by boiling edibles in liquid, is a very accessible recipe. So easy, in fact, even prehistoric humans could do it.

Although archaeologists cannot agree upon whether prehistoric humans started cooking food 1.8 million or 12,000 years ago, the assumption that the cooking method of boiling ingredients has been around for a long, long time is a very safe bet.

Drawing of the first "pot"
The world’s oldest cooking vessel was discovered in China, dated back some 20,000 years ago. What deliciousness was created within, today’s diners may never know, but we're sure that something akin to modern soup was simmered sometime during that vessel’s lifetime.

Unfortunately, prehistoric humans did not document their domestic doings, and we will never know what they called those boiled meals. Even with the invention of written language in 3200 BC, Mesopotamian cooks didn’t bother to jot down recipes (much less define what each type was.) Our best source are the writings of Roman and Greek historians.

The modern word "soup", most likely Proto-Germanic origin, can be easily traced back to Late Latin "suppa" (3-6c AD) and then onto Old French "soupe" (9-14c.) Both words refer to "bread soaked in broth." The broth had to come from somewhere — water and meat or vegetables inside some sort of liquid-proof vessel and cooked over a nice fire is my best guess. So the earliest soup recipes may have not even involved boiling!

Regardless, "soup" is undeniably an old word for a liquid-based meal. The words "stew" and "chowder" are less easily traced, and seem to be more recent additions to modern language.

Oft-cited Greek historian Herodotus (484–425 BC) described a cooking method favored by the frugal Scythians (8-4c BC):
put the flesh into an animal's paunch, mix water with it, and boil it like that over the bone fire. The bones burn very well, and the paunch easily contains all the meat once it has been stripped off. In this way an ox, or any other sacrificial beast, is ingeniously made to boil itself.
From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, C. Scott Littleton, Linda A. Malcor, retrieved 10/1/15. page 191
Sounds like stew to us, but nowhere does the word "stew" or its etymological roots appear in Herodotus’ writings.

Apicius, a collection of 1st century AD cookery compiled in the sometime in the 4-5th centuries contains several stew-like recipes destined for the wealthiest of Romans. But once again, in it's native language, the word "stew" does not come into play.

The Middle English (11-15c) word "stew" is of Middle English (11-15c) origin, and first entered our language sometime in the 14th century. It was used as a noun, not a verb, referring to the cooking vessel but not the contents. "Stew" was derived from Old French "estuve" (cauldron), most likely based on Greek "tuphos" (smoke, steam.) Things were simmering, apparently.

Soup's on...or is that stew simmering
in this Medieval kitchen?
Stew’s use as a verb to describe "a moist heat cooking process" did not come into use until the early 15th century,  when "to stew" was described as "to boil slowly, to cook meat by simmering it in liquid." Examples of recipes for "stewed meat with vegetables" are even more recent (earliest published in 1756), calling for simmering ingredients to be fully-submersed in liquid.

Slang term "stewed" for "drunk" is attested to have appeared in 1737. Interesting, but absolutely unrelated to the contents of our bowl...perhaps we should add a bit of cognac or sherry.

Chowder’s etymology is more obscure. "Chowder" (archaic "chouder"), can be reliably traced back to the 16th century. Its roots lie perhaps in French "chaudière" (stew pot), either related to Old Northern French (Old Norman dialect, 9-14c) "caudron" (cauldron), or to Late Latin "calderia" (cauldron). So far, we’re talking about vessels, not meals.

Chowder's origins may lie among Breton fishermen emigrating from France to Newfoundland. From there the recipe spread to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and finally New England. But it isn’t until 1751 that chowder can be readily identified as a meal. And it’s a thick, fished-based recipe published in a New England periodical. Some might even dare to call this a stew:
from the Boston Evening Post, published on September 23, 1751

First lay some Onions to keep the Pork from burning
Because in Chouder there can be not turning;
Then lay some Pork in slices very thin,
Thus you in Chouder always must begin.
Next lay some Fish cut crossways very nice
Then season well with Pepper, Salt, and Spice; Parsley, Sweet-Marjoram, Savory, and Thyme, Then Biscuit next which must be soak'd some Time. Thus your Foundation laid, you will be able To raise a Chouder, high as Tower of Babel;
For by repeating o'er the Same again,
You may make a Chouder for a thousand men.
Last a Bottle of Claret, with Water eno; to smother 'em,
You'll have a Mess which some call Omnium gather 'em.

from What's Cooking America, Linda Stradley, retrieved 10/1/15. History of Chowder
So what’s in a name really, when all that truly matters is that the contents are a culinary delight?

The 1751 recipe is obviously a hearty one. Onion, pork and fish types are left to the cook’s choice. No proportions are given, unless you count the bottle of Claret. Even that is suspect.

So it seems that chowder could be described as a traditional recipe with no clear pedigree, instead being a Breton variation of a thick soup or stew, a springboard recipe passed on and improved by generations of immigrants: No leaden 18th century biscuits on hand! Let's try a different starch (like flour or potatoes) as the thickening agent. We don't fancy sliced pork (salt-cured in those bygone days) and mystery fish! Let's use shellfish or corn (or both.) We prefer a broth over water and wine! Let's go for it. What about some milk or cream? Stir it in! So what if these ingredients are not what our ancestors used in the Eighteenth century? We're the ones eating.

The point is not to get hung up on words, labels and history, but to make a meal that transcends expectations and simply, tastes great.

Late Summer Corn Chowder

Serves 4

spoonful of creamy vegetarian corn chowder
Call it soup, stew or chowder, this vegetarian dish remains satisfying and delicious.

A simple cob broth, sautéed aromatics, fresh corn, potatoes brought to a hard boil, scallions, a finish of half & half and a sprinkle of chives result in a magical dose of summertime essence.

It's an easy recipe, adaptable for vegans, pescaterians and meat-eaters alike. (Variations appear below the recipe.)

  • 3 ears yellow, white or bi-color corn, husks and silk removed
  • 1 small bay leaf
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup 1/4-inch dice yellow onion
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup 1/2-inch dice celery
  • 1 medium russet potato, peeled and diced 3/4-inch (about 1 cup)
  • 1/4 cup scallions
  • Salt, freshly ground pepper, for seasoning
  • 1 1/2 cups half-and-half
  • 1 tablespoon fresh snipped chives
Cut the kernels off the cobs (you’ll have about 2 1/2 cups), and set aside.

Break the cobs in half, and put the cobs, bay leaf and 3 cups of water into a 2-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, and then reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Discard the cobs and bay leaf; transfer the broth to a heat-proof container.

Next, wipe out the saucepan, add the butter and olive oil and heat over medium heat. Add the onions, celery and garlic, reduce heat to medium-low and cook until the veggies are soft, 8 to 10 minutes. Sprinkle flour over the vegetables and stir to coat everything well.

Add the broth to the saucepan; bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Add the potatoes, cover and boil hard until the potatoes partially break down, about 7 minutes. Reduce the heat, stir in the scallions and reserved corn kernels, season with 1 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste, and simmer until the corn is soft, about 8 minutes.

Add the half-and-half and simmer until soup is hot. Taste, and adjust seasoning with more salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into bowls, garnish with snipped chives and enjoy.
Some Handy Tips

We made a broth from the cobs, but you don’t have to. Skip the cob broth step, then proceed as written, substituting your favorite poultry, veggie or fish stock.

Don’t toss away corn on the cob that's been sitting around for a bit. Older, starchier corn cooks up beautifully in soups, stews and chowders. Just add it along with the onions, celery and garlic. The extra bit of starchiness will thicken the chowder, so you may need to add an extra bit of liquid if things seem too thick.

A cup of leftover cooked shrimp, crab, lobster and even smoked salmon are great stir-ins for this chowder. Add those cooked ingredients at the end; gently heat until warmed through, and serve.

Variations

Grilled Corn Chowder
You can also make this soup with leftover grilled corn. Simply remove the kernels from the cobs and make the broth with those grilled cobs. Since the corn’s already cooked, add the kernels with the half-and-half.

Frozen Corn Chowder
No fresh corn in sight? No problem. Use best-quality frozen corn instead. Skip making the corn broth, use 3 cups veggie or chicken stock, and substitute 2 ½ cups frozen corn for the fresh. The corn flavor won’t be as pronounced, but it’s still mighty tasty.

Corn and Crustacean Chowder
Omit the bay leaf and use 3 cups of seafood stock instead of water. Stir in 1 tablespoon Old Bay seasoning with the flour. Stir in 1 cup cooked lump crab or lobster meat (picked through to remove bits of shell) along with the half-and-half.

Vegan Corn Chowder
You will need one extra ear of corn. Substitute corn (or olive) oil for the butter. Grate that extra ear, catching all milky juices, and add  with the potatoes. (The additional starch from the grated corn will thicken the soup nicely.) Omit the half-and-half, or if creamy is your goal, mix together 1/2 cup full-fat coconut cream and 1/2 cup unsweetened rice or soy milk. Use this instead of the half-and-half.

Corn and Cob-smoked Bacon Chowder
Instead of the bay leaf, use 3 sprigs of fresh thyme. Before sautéing the veggies, cut two strips cob-smoked bacon (or other smoked bacon) into 1/2-inch dice, place in 2-quart sauce pan and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until bacon is deep golden brown, about 4 minutes. Remove bacon with slotted spoon, transfer to paper towel, and set aside. Discard all but 2 tablespoons of bacon fat, and use this in place of the butter and oil. Don’t forget to garnish soup with the cooked bacon just before serving.

Ingredients for Corn Chowder