SEATTLE — Corn chowder does not sound like a thrill. A ubiquitous vegetable plus a soup intended to make use of any kind of ubiquitous stuff using also-ubiquitous milk and/or cream, plus other ubiquitous vegetables … should be fine. Not amazing, however. And, then, vegan corn chowder — not to cast aspersions on anyone’s dietary choices, but subtracting the dairy from the situation … maybe less good.
Chef Kristi Brown of Seattle’s stellar Communion makes AMAZING vegan corn chowder. Apologies for the all-caps, but this is corn chowder that makes one want to SHOUT ABOUT IT. To quote myself from January 2021 (for I already have rhapsodized about this corn chowder): “This superlative soup could fool the biggest butter-lover: luxurious in texture yet also earthy, sweet and slightly smoky, spicy but sneakily so. The star ingredient is joined by a full supporting cast of sweet potato, carrot, celery and onion, served topped with lots of green onion diagonal-cut for peppery freshness.” In December 2020, I also correctly described this vegan corn chowder as “magnificent.”
I pestered Brown for details back then, and she would say only that it is definitely vegan, that very good olive oil comes into play, that saving lots of vegetable scraps to make your own vegetable stock is clutch, and that the seasoning is her own mix of “like 18 different spices” that she calls Sez’. She says she’s going to start selling Sez’, and we all should hope fervently for this gift to humanity.
Brown’s vegan corn chowder is so good that everybody wanted to eat it, so at Communion they had to make it sometimes 20 gallons at a time, and she got sick of it, and she says she might never put it back on the menu again, or then again, she might sometime. Genius is allowed its caprice.
Summer is the best season for corn chowder because fresh, local sweet corn is ALSO AMAZING, and, if you’re not going to eat it right off the cob, unsullied by anything, corn chowder is, factually, the only other way to go. Also: Corn chowder is excellent served cold in the shade on a hot afternoon, possibly with a glass of rosé (or eaten out of the pot whilst cooling off in front of the open refrigerator at any hour, day or night).
On behalf of us all, I recently re-pestered Brown via text message about her vegan corn chowder, and while she is unwilling to part with the recipe and definitely will not reveal the composition of Sez’, she did give me a few hints. She uses red onion (I decided to go with both red and yellow for my chowder), but she recommends against putting any red onion scraps in homemade vegetable stock (though, per Brown, yellow onions are fine for that purpose). She thumbs-upped my plan to make a quick-ish vegetable stock using the corn cobs and day-of vegetable scraps for those of us who fail to keep a bag of scraps going in the freezer (bad us!). She also disclosed the proper dairy substitute: oat milk. (Also: I happened to mention that I do not like green bell peppers because they make me burp green-pepper burps, which she ha-ha’d. And — guess what — the great Kristi Brown does not like green peppers, either, so all the rest of you who do are officially wrong.)
I’m just going to state flatly that the vegan corn chowder I have devised is not as great as Brown’s. It is, however, very, very good and absolutely worth making. Maybe someday she will give us her recipe and/or Sez’s. I would encourage you to experiment with the spices here — I’ve kept mine pretty light-handed, though a little bit of zip from the cayenne does come through. Like Brown’s, this corn chowder evolves beautifully with reheating, thickening and richening (definitely a word), if you don’t eat it all at once (or eat all the leftovers cold).
Choose your corn carefully. The leaves should be nice and green, not dry-looking, and the silk peeking out ideally should be pale and even slightly sticky. Be bold in peeling the husk back — not just at the tip, but all the way down. You deserve good corn! Look for plump, firm kernels. And be sure to buy our marvelous Washington sweet corn, for it is the best, as I’m sure Brown would agree if I were to pester her about it.
B.J.C.’S Vegan Corn Chowder — With Thanks to Chef Kristi Brown
Serves 6 as a soup course, maybe 4 for a lunch or light supper
OK, vegans, please don’t yell at me, but for those who consume dairy, the oat milk/creamer may be swapped out for half-and-half (preferably organic), and those definitely-other-people-not-us-vegans also might incorporate a little butter in with the olive oil. And Kristi Brown said this, not me: Her original, nonvegan corn chowder recipe had salmon in it, so … — Bethany Jean Clement
6 medium ears fresh, sweet Washington corn
2 medium carrots — 1 whole and 1 small-diced
3 ribs of celery — 2 whole and 1 small-diced (plus any celery tops)
1 medium yellow onion, 1/2 diced and the other 1/2 left alone
1/2 medium red onion, diced (reserve the other 1/2 for a salad or something)
4 fresh bay leaves or 2 dried
3 tablespoons high-quality extra virgin olive oil (plus more for garnish)
2 tablespoons flour
1 large potato, peeled and 1/4-inch diced (about 11/4 cup)
1 small-to-medium sweet potato (orange or white, up to you), peeled and 1/4-inch diced (about 1 cup)
1 cup unsweetened oat-milk creamer or oat milk
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon cumin
Dash of cayenne
Chives, snipped, and/or green onion, finely sliced on the diagonal, plus more olive oil for garnish
Shuck it! Then stand each ear of corn on its butt end on a tray or in the bottom of a large shallow bowl, and use a sharp knife to carefully cut the kernels off, reserving the cobs (and, of course, the kernels). Warning: If your corn is nice and fresh, this will be messy. (Optional: Some recipes say to “milk the corn,” which involves running the back of a knife down the denuded cobs to get all the juices out. It’s my sense that we’ll extract those precious corn-fluids by making the stock next, and I’m also just going to say that life feels too short to spend time milking corn.)
Break your corn cobs in half and put them in a 31/2- or 4-quart pot, along with 1 whole carrot broken in half, 2 ribs celery broken to fit the pot (plus any celery tops), the 1/2 yellow onion, 2 fresh bay leaves or 1 dried, 1 teaspoon salt and a sprinkle of white pepper. Add water to almost cover, about 4 to 6 cups (the pot will be crowded). Bring to a boil, give it a stir and then reduce heat to simmer for 30 minutes, stirring halfway through. Remove from heat, and let rest.
Heat the olive oil for a minute or two in a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, then add the diced yellow and red onions, diced carrot and diced celery. Salt and white pepper them, stir and cook about 6-8 minutes, stirring again about every 2 minutes. Sprinkle on flour and cook, stirring, another 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat.
Carefully strain your stock through a colander into a large bowl.
Add the potato, sweet potato, 1 teaspoon salt, a sprinkle of white pepper, and 2 fresh bay leaves or 1 dried to your vegetables in the large pot, then add enough strained stock to cover it all. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, stir and continue cooking until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes, stirring maybe every 5 minutes.
Add the oat milk/creamer, corn and spices, then stir and season lightly with salt and pepper. Add a little more stock or water if it seems very thick, though the corn will release a fair amount of liquid, so don’t panic. Turn up heat to bring back to bubbling, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 15 more minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add more salt and white pepper to taste — you probably want to add a teaspoon or more of salt, a little at a time, to balance the sweetness of the corn, sweet potato and onions. Don’t be shy!
Simmer another 15 minutes to half an hour, stirring occasionally. At this point, the chowder should be thickened and ready to serve; cooking more or reheating later will thicken matters further, amalgamating the vegetables and breaking down the corn, which is also good.
Garnish with chives or green onion plus a swirl of your high-quality olive oil, and enjoy. Also good served cold during summer heat.