Restaurant Memories: The Corn Soup That Made Me Swoon

For many people, their strongest memories center around firsts: the first time they rode a bike, their first car, their first kiss.

Chef Benjamin Schade.

For me, many of those memorable firsts center around—no surprise here—food. The first time I had spit-roasted whole pig cooked over a fire by my uncles at a tiny cabin in the Blue Mountains; my first taste of kimchi at a snowy mountainside inn on a student trip to Korea; my first pesto pasta in the early days of Papa Haydn's eastside location that was so packed with garlic I could still taste it three days later—which I adored, by the way!

I remember being floored by the broth served with rockfish made by chef Serge Selbe at the London Grill that was as clear as water but was intensely infused with the flavor of fresh tomatoes—he described it as filtered gazpacho. More recently my mind was blown by the corn soup made by Benjamin Schade when he was chef at the late, lamented Old Salt Marketplace in northeast Portland.

Slice kernels off cobs.

Regular readers know I'm a fool for anything with fresh corn in it, and this bowl was the essence of corn in a smooth, creamy, velvety robe, adorned only with a pat of butter melting seductively over its surface punctuated by a sprinkling of fresh pepper. I'd been so taken with it I pestered the poor guy for a couple of years, and just this summer he graciously agreed to share the recipe.

Recently Schade has been cultivating a working urban oasis he's dubbed Schadey Acres Farm, growing heritage varieties of beans, squash, peppers, turnips and other vegetables in the more-than-a-dozen raised beds he's built around his home. He makes use of this bounty in his capacity as a personal chef, but also produces a line of pickled and preserved goods under his own Private Reserve Preserves brand.

Purée kernels with onions, then press through a sieve.

When Schade arrived to show me how the soup was made, I was astounded to find out it had only four ingredients: butter, onions, corn and salt. No cream? What made it so velvety? He said it was all in the method, which he'd learned from Kevin Gibson while working at Castagna.

That answered a lot of my questions about this remarkable soup, since I consider Gibson to be a soup guru. (Anyone remember his remarkable Too Many Tomatoes soup from Castagna? I rest my case.)

With credit given where credit was due, Schade went on to say he basically makes the soup according to Gibson's recipe, which is incredibly simple but more technique-driven than one might guess given the number of ingredients.

Hot sauce, salt and it's done.

Starting with onions simmered in butter, Schade combined them with the kernels from 10 ears of corn which he then simmered ever-so-briefly in corn stock—Schade said Gibson told him the secret to corn soup was to "not cook the corn." Purée the mixture in a blender, run it through a sieve and it's done.

With corn nearing the end of its season in the Pacific Northwest, I'll be heading to the nearest farmers' market this weekend and buying up as much fresh corn as I can, so you'd best get there before I do!

Benjamin Schade's Corn Soup

Adapted from Kevin Gibson

Makes approx. 2 qts.

10 ears of corn
3 med. yellow onions, diced finely
1/4 c. butter
2 qts. corn stock
Salt
Dash of Crystal hot sauce (or tabasco)

Cut the kernels from the ears of corn. (Schade recommends placing the cob on a cutting board and slicing one side of the kernels from the cob. Rotate the cob so the cut side is against the board and slice the second side. Repeat on the last two sides of the cob. See photo above.) You can also then scrape the cobs with a knife or a handy little tool called a corn slitter to remove any remaining kernels and juice.

Corn slitter.

If you need corn stock, place the scraped cobs in a large pot (a Dutch oven or pasta pot) and barely cover with water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 30 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh sieve.

While simmering the stock, chop the onions. Melt butter in a large pot and add onions. Sauté until translucent, stirring constantly to avoid browning. (Schade says it's critical not to brown the onions.) Add corn kernels and stir to combine then add corn stock and bring to a simmer. Simmer 5 minutes. (Remember Gibson's advice: do not cook the corn!)

Remove from heat and immediately strain the corn mixture through a sieve or colander, reserving the stock for another use. Put the corn in a blender, making sure not to overfill the blender; you can do this in batches—remember that hot liquids can explode out of a blender, so Schade advises holding down a thick towel over the lid of the blender while running it. Purée until completely smooth.

Strain through a fine mesh sieve into a large soup pot. If you're straining several batches, you can add strained bits of corn mixture back to the next batch to purée and strain. Discard the strained remains in the compost. Schade stresses that it's better for the soup to be thick since extra liquid can be added to thin out the soup but extra liquid can’t be removed. Start thick and thin to perfect texture.

When all the corn mixture has been strained into the soup pot, add 1 tsp. of hot sauce and salt to taste. (Schade recommends no more than 1 Tbsp. hot sauce for 2 quarts of soup; he said "the hot sauce is not for heat but for the vinegar to brighten the flavor.")

Heat briefly before serving, taste for seasonings and garnish with a pat of butter and grinding of pepper.

Soup's On: Sopa de Carnitas

As often happens around my house, this soup recipe came about on a chilly winter night when I didn't have any particular plan for dinner. Which means I started rummaging around in the fridge looking for inspiration, hoping desperately that I wouldn't have to make a trip to the store.

Fortunately there was a smallish chunk of pork shoulder stashed in the meat drawer, a couple of potatoes in the veg bin and half an orange left over from a batch of granola I'd made earlier in the day. Hmmm…maybe carnitas…

The problem? Without that dreaded trip to the store, there wasn't going to be enough to make carnitas tacos for three hungry people. But then it occurred to me that adding pork stock to make a hearty soup—a go-to winter dinner around here—would be a cinch. With tortillas from Three Sisters Nixtamal alongside, this was a simple dinner-on-the-fly recipe that would be fit for company served with a big chicory or winter greens salad.

¡Buen provecho!

Sopa de Carnitas

1 1/2 lbs. boneless pork shoulder, sliced into bite-sized pieces
1 qt. pork or chicken stock
2 c. water
1 onion, cut in 1/4" dice
3 large cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 tsp. dried oregano
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 orange, cut in quarters
1 tsp. kosher salt plus more to taste
2 yellow potatoes, cut into 1/2" dice

Put all ingredients except potatoes into Dutch oven or soup pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cover. Simmer for 2 hours until meat is very tender and starting to fall apart.

Remove orange pieces and bay leaves. Add diced potatoes and simmer for 30 minutes until tender. Add salt to taste and serve.

A Festival to Celebrate Winter (Plus Celeriac Soup)!

Just about exactly a month ago I posted about an event called the Fill Your Pantry and Winter Vegetable Sagra, a gathering of farmers, ranchers, plant breeders and folks who care about where their food comes from and how it’s grown. It offers the community a chance to order in bulk from local producers and pick up those orders at the event, but since most of the producers bring some extra meat, produce and bulk items along, it becomes a giant community farmers' market.

Mona Johnson of Tournant.

Portland chefs known for their support of local producers—Chef Timothy Wastell  Katherine Deumling of Cook With What You Have; Jaret Foster and Mona Johnson of Tournant; Jim Dixon of Real Good Food; and Lola Milholland of Umi Organic Noodles, among others—cook up samples of dishes like radicchio Caesar salad, yakisoba with vegetables, bean and cabbage stew and creamy celeriac soup (recipe below).

So much goodness!

This year the event was literally packed cheek by jowl with people shopping, eating, talking and, in some cases, even singing the praises of our local bounty. I can't tell you how uplifting and inspiring it is to see your community come together to enjoy and celebrate the goodness that is produced here. The atmosphere was absolutely electric!

Thanks to Friends of Family Farmers, the Culinary Breeding Network and Oregon State University Small Farms Program for sponsoring this outstanding gathering.

All in the [Apiaceae] Family Celeriac Soup

By Mona Johnson and Jaret Foster of Tournant

This creamy, comforting celeriac soup is served with a supporting cast of characters from the same Apiaceae family to which it belongs. Celery, parsley, fennel and caraway all play a role in complementing celeriac's mild, earthy flavor. If time is short, feel free to top with only the ghee or gremolata, or skip both and just swirl in a dollop of creme fraiche or a drizzle of brown butter.

For the celeriac soup:
3 Tbsp. butter
2 medium leeks (white and light green parts only), halved lengthwise, sliced into thin half moons, rinsed and drained
2 medium fennel bulbs, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced
2 medium celery roots (about 1 1/2 lbs.), trimmed, peeled and chopped in 1/2" dice
1 c. dry white wine
1 Tbsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
6 c. water
1/2 c. heavy cream

For the smoky caraway ghee:
4 Tbsp. ghee
1 tsp. caraway seeds
1 tsp. smoked paprika

For the celery gremolata:
1/4 c. finely chopped Italian parsley
2 cloves minced garlic
2 Tbsp. finely diced celery
Grated zest of 1 lemon

To make the soup, melt butter in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add leeks and cook until beginning to soften, about 2-3 minutes. Add fennel and cook until softened, stirring occasionally, about 8-10 minutes. Add the celery root to the pot along with salt, bay leaves and thyme, stirring to combine. Add wine and simmer until mostly evaporated. Add water and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and continue simmering until all vegetables are soft enough to purée, about 10-12 minutes.

Purée soup with an immersion blender (or in batches in a blender) until very smooth. Heat purée over medium low heat, then stir in heavy cream. Taste for seasoning and consistency, adding more salt, cream or water if needed for desired taste and texture.

To make the ghee, melt ghee in a small saucepan over low heat. Add caraway seeds and smoked paprika and cook, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes, being careful not to scorch spices. Remove from heat, let cool, then strain through a fine mesh strainer, discarding solids.

For the gremolata, add all ingredients to a small bowl, mixing to combine.

To serve, ladle soup into shallow bowls, swirl with infused ghee and sprinkle with gremolata.

Best Tomato Soup (Apologies to Campbell's)

Dinner at my family's table growing up was a product of the then-new and novel notion of convenience for housewives. Why spend hours preserving fruits and vegetables when you can simply open a can and have dinner on the table in less than half an hour? Cookbooks, women's magazines and television commercials touted "open a box" instant gratification for puddings, cakes, hamburger helpers and soup mixes with brand names that became part of the family—think Duncan Hines, Campbell's, Lipton and, yes, Betty Crocker.

With three kids and a husband to feed every night, and especially when she started working full time, my mother needed all the help she could get. I've joked that during my childhood I thought that Campbell's cream of mushroom soup was the glue that held the universe together. Even when I was on my own, a good tuna casserole needed that special touch that only one product—I've since found a superior recipe—could achieve. My future husband wooed me with lunches he made himself with cream of tomato soup (Campbell's to the rescue again!) and grilled cheese sandwiches.

So, as with that tuna casserole, recreating the flavors I remember and the satisfaction they provided has become a bit of an obsession. A cream of tomato soup like the one from the can with its smooth, silky, tomatoey flavor—we always made it with water rather than milk—that filled your mouth and warmed your belly is one that has been at the top of my "figure this out" list.

Lots of recipes I researched called for various herbs and spices to be added; some add vinegar or honey, probably to balance out the acidity of the tomatoes. But I was looking for a recipe that was simple to make and that would have been easy enough for my mom to whip up for her family's dinner after a long day at the office, a glass of wine in one hand (would that she would have allowed herself that) and a wooden spoon in the other.

With a good supply of frozen, roasted astiana tomatoes in the freezer, I was all set with the main ingredient, and their perfect balance of sweetness to acidity made the notion of adding anything else just so much unnecessary froo-froo. Having made this soup a few times now, both with and without grilled cheese sandwiches, it's always brought back those days of yore, but with the satisfaction of knowing I no longer need help from the folks at Campbell's.

Creamy Roasted Tomato Soup

8 Tbsp. (1 stick) butter
2 med. onions, chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. flour
2 qts. (8 c.) roasted tomatoes or 3 28-oz. cans crushed tomatoes with their juices
2 c. chicken broth
1 Tbsp. kosher salt plus more to taste
1 tsp. celery salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper

In a Dutch oven or large soup pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until tender and translucent. Add garlic and continue to sauté 2 minutes. Add flour and stir, making sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan, for 3 minutes. Add broth, tomatoes, salt, celery salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 30 minutes, stirring frequently to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan. Remove soup from heat and, using an immersion blender,  purée the soup thoroughly until smooth*. Add more salt to taste, if needed. Serve.

* I don't mind a little texture from any bits that don't get totally blended in, but if you want a completely silky smooth finished product, you can press it through a sieve, which will catch any remaining seeds or other bits.

Rerun: A Good Woman Makes A Good Soup

I made this soup the other night, and if you looked up "comfort" in the dictionary, it wouldn't show your mom or your teddy bear or your pillow or your fuzzy slippers. It would be a picture of this soup along with the recipe. (BTW, I puréed it this time…what can I say but OMG.) Warm, terrifically flavorful and fill-your-belly delicious, it's easy and perfect for the season. And, though I don't do this often, I'm rerunning the original post I wrote two years ago. Enjoy.

Just before the holidays I was out at Ayers Creek Farm helping Carol and Anthony get ready for the big holiday market at Hillsdale. Well, I say "helping" but it's more like "trying to not seriously f*** things up" while packing boxes of preserves, weighing and measuring beans, polenta and wheat into little bags with a big scoop.

One of the great things about these days at the farm, aside from getting to wear my boots if outside work is required, is sitting down at the table for a big lunch of soup or stew, a hefty loaf of bread and a nice chunk of cheese. On this day, a bit before lunchtime, Carol asked me to pull a big pot out of the fridge that contained braised leeks and potatoes in a white-ish liquid.

While that warmed on the stove, Carol and I went just outside to the kitchen garden to gather a few leaves of sorrel that hadn't yet gone dormant. (Note to self: plant this next year!) It was chopped and thrown into the pot, a cup or so of sour cream was stirred in with some salt and we had a classic "Potage Bonne Femme," a potato leek soup rather like vichysoisse only with more leeks than potatoes.

Carol prefers to use water to cook her vegetables rather than chicken stock, feeling that the flavor of the leeks is more pronounced. In my attempts to recreate this at home, I used half chicken stock and half water and it didn't seem to overwhelm the leeks, and also added a little richness. I've made it with both real sour cream and (purists don't choke) Tofutti sour cream—Dave's lactose intolerant, remember—and both were amazing, even according to my very choosy son who's not crazy about substituting tofu products for the real thing.

It's a comforting, rich and company-worthy meal that is super simple to make in an hour or so. Add a crusty loaf of bread and some cheese with an ice-cold glass of French chardonnay alongside and you're going to get raves from your crew.

Potage Bonne Femme (Potato Leek Soup)

3 Tbsp. butter
4 leeks, halved and cut into 1/2" slices, about 4 c.
3 Tbsp. flour
2 c. water
2 c. chicken stock
4 med. Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1/2" or so cubes
2 tsp. salt
1 c. sour cream
1 c. coarsely chopped sorrel (optional)
3 Tbsp. chives, minced (optional)

Melt butter in soup pot or large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add chopped leeks and cook slowly for 5 min. Remove from heat, add flour and stir. Put back on heat and cook, stirring constantly and without browning for a minute. Add water and stock, stirring well. Add potatoes and salt. Bring to boil and lower heat to simmer for 50 minutes. Add sour cream and chives and stir to heat. Adjust salt to taste. Serve, garnished with chopped chives.

Option: Purée with immersion blender before adding the sour cream or cool and purée in a food processor (or blender) in batches. For a vegetarian or vegan version, substitute margarine for the butter and use water or a vegetable stock and Tofutti sour cream. Really, it'll be fantastic.