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Georgia O’Keeffe’s (Deceptively) Simple Corn Soup; a Little Lovage Never Hurts

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This velvety fresh corn soup will be making a star turn in our kitchen this summer. It is especially delicious garnished with the celery-like leaves of lovage, a favorite herb of painter Georgia O’Keeffe.

 

If you hunger for fresh corn, summer is your moment.

Around here, the first field grown corn appears at the farmer’s market in late June.  We love it every which way, but the simpler the better. B has been known to eat four or five ears, lightly boiled, for instance, and served without embellishment.

Butter would be too much of a good thing.

I adore fresh corn too, especially the way my grandmother used to make it. She would stand the shucked ear on end and run a sharp paring knife down each row of raw kernels, slicing off the skin. Then she’d scrape out the milky sweet pulp with the tip of a silver teaspoon. Heated gently, swirled with a pat of rich butter and lightly sprinkled with salt, this was the most exquisite dish of my childhood summers.

Last month in Santa Fe I discovered another way to enjoy sweet corn.  In A Painter’s Kitchen: Recipes from the Kitchen of Georgia O’Keeffe, there is a recipe for Corn Soup. It is deceptively  simple—much like the artist’s luminous New Mexican landscapes—as it depends almost entirely on the freshness and deliciousness of peak season home grown corn that is plucked from the stalk and cooked almost immediately.

Now I can assure you that in early May there is no ripe home grown corn in northern New Mexico. It’s just not warm enough. So when the James Beard award-winning chef and anthropologist, Lois Ellen Frank, said that she was making fresh corn soup for lunch at The Santa Fe School of Cooking, I had to wonder.

It’s always wonderful to learn something new.

Frank’s trick for dealing with grocery store corn, maybe a week old and probably shipped from Florida, was to roast the ears in their husks in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes, then turn and roast them with the bottom side up for another 10 to 15. That preliminary step steams (but does not quite cook) the ears, concentrating the sugars and intensifying the corn taste. The husks add a subtle earthy-vegetal flavor that is ever so appealing.

Once the ears are cool enough to handle, it’s a moment’s work to strip off the silk and husks, and cut the kernels from the cobs. The tender corn is then blended with milk and a little sautéed onion.  O’Keeffe like her soup velvety smooth, so the resulting “mash” is pressed through a fine sieve or strainer with a pestle to release all its liquid goodness into the pot.

For accuracy, I should mention that the soup we ate that day—along with a few other O’Keeffe-inspired dishes, including an Arugula Salad with the painter’s favorite Herb Dressing and a spectacular Norwegian Apple Pie Cake with Rum Sauce—omitted O’Keeffe’s Soup Mix.  The artist was a firm believer in healthy living, and this protein-packed, strong-tasting blend of powdered milk, soy flour, kelp and brewer’s yeast, inspired by nutritionist and popular author Lelord Kordel, was one way she made sure she was getting the maximum boost from her diet.

I also skipped the Soup Mix when I made the corn soup at home. There were a few other changes as well.

Instead of Vege-Sal, the commercial “herb salt” which served as a salt substitute in many of O’Keeffe’s recipes, I mixed a little sea salt and fresh herbs from the garden into the corn before blending. It’s important to use only a tablespoon or so of mixed herbs—I wound up chopping 2 large basil leaves with a handful of chives and a little marjoram—so that their flavor does not overwhelm the delicate flavor of the fresh corn.

But in homage to O’Keeffe, I did garnish the soup with a few pungent lovage leaves. In the cookbook, Margaret Wood writes that lovage was the artist’s favorite herb. It was always included in the mixed Herb Salad Dressing, and sprigs were also added to pots of Tomato Soup and Beef Stew, two dishes for which the herb has a special affinity.

It’s no surprise that lovage had pride of place in O’Keeffe’s herb garden. This tall, stalky perennial is a vigorous plant, one that probably adapted well to the difficult growing conditions in Northern New Mexico. Its leaves have a distinctly intriguing flavor. At first bite they taste like strong celery leaves, but almost immediately turn peppery and then bitter. In the end there’s a surprise: a “round,” sweet, aromatic taste that rolls smoothly across the palate.

A Mediteranean native, lovage was a favorite of ancient Roman cooks. In de re Coquinaria, a collection of “recipes” said to have been collected by Apicius, a luxury-loving gourmand, the herb appears countless times, often combined with black pepper. In a section on mushrooms, for instance, there is a mention of stewed mushroom stems with lovage and pepper along with eggs, a little honey, broth and oil to taste. In another on fowl, stewed ostrich is (possibly) made more palatable with pepper, lovage, thyme, honey, mustard, vinegar, oil, and “satury,” (the herb we know as savory). Virtually all the meat recipes include the herb.

According to Gernot Katzer, lovage is still used in parts of Southern and Central Europe to flavor beef stock. In Liguria in Italy, it is said to be a key seasoning, along with oregano, for tomato sauce, while in Germany it is a flavoring for potato dishes. Katzer adds that “its characteristic flavor fits well to sour pickles and aromatic vinegars.”

But in general, lovage has fallen out of the modern cook’s lexicon.

It’s also not that easy to find. I stumbled across my little plant at the farmer’s market last spring; on line it appears to be available from The Growers’ Exchange, while seeds can be ordered from Baker Creek. If you do decide to plant it in your herb garden, don’t despair if nothing much happens right away. Mine drooped last season; this spring it came roaring back, producing lots of flavorful leaves and thin upright stalks. Next year, I expect it to soar. The usual advice is to cultivate only one lovage plant in your garden as it will provide all the leaves that a single family could possibly enjoy.

If you can’t find lovage, garnish the soup with chives or parsley, just as O’Keeffe did.

 

Corn Soup with Lovage

This recipe is adapted from Corn Soup in A Painter’s Kitchen by Margaret Wood and includes several ideas from Lois Ellen Frank who prepared the soup at the Santa Fe School of Cooking when I was there in May. Reading about corn in The Flavor Bible, I picked up another interesting suggestion: making a broth from the leftover husks (see note). It takes a little time, but the resulting broth is sweet, delicate and absolutely delicious–a perfect addition to this deceptively simple soup.

 

To serve 2 or 3 people as a main course

 

Ingredients:

4-5 ears fresh corn in the shuck (for about 4 cups kernels)

½ cup chopped Vidalia or other sweet onion

2 cups milk

1 cup corn shuck broth, or more if needed (see below)

Generous pinch sea salt

1 tablespoon fresh chopped herbs of your choice (I used basil, chives and marjoram)

or 1 teaspoon dried mixed herbs

1/4 cup reserved corn kernels (optional)

Lovage leaves for garnish, or chopped chives or parsley

 

Method:

Roast the corn (if not peak season):  Set the oven to 375 degrees. Leaving the corn in the husk, trim off the stems and any silk at the top of each ear. Place the ears on a rack in the oven and roast for 10-15 minutes; turn and roast for another 10-15 minutes. Remove and let cool.

Meanwhile saute the onions for 5 or 6 minutes until softened. Do not brown. Set aside.

Make the corn shuck broth: Strip the cooled ears of their husks and silk. Discard the silk and any damaged outer leaves. Place the soft inner leaves in a medium pot and cover with 6 cups of water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover partly and simmer gently for 45 minutes. Off heat, let the broth cool to room temperature, then strain and discard the husks. Over a high flame, reduce the broth to 1-1/2 to 2 cups. The flavor should be sweet and delicate with a slightly earthy corn taste. Add a bit of sea salt if desired.

Prepare the soup: Standing each ear vertically on a plate, cut the kernels off the cob. There should be roughly 4 cups of corn kernels. Set 1/4 cup aside for garnish, if desired.

Put the remaining kernels in the blender, along with the sautéed onion, milk, sea salt and fresh or dried herbs, and one cup of the corn shuck broth. Whirr for 15 seconds. If the mixture seems too thick, thin with a little more broth.

Place a large fine-meshed strainer over a deep pot. Pour the soup through the strainer in batches, using a pestle to force the liquid through the strainer into the pot. Discard the corn pulp or save for another use.

Gently heat the soup over a medium low flame, stirring as it thickens. Do not let it simmer  or it may curdle.

Serve immediately: Pour soup into individual bowls and garnish each with a spoonful of corn kernels, if desired, and a sprig of lovage or chives or parsley.

 

Note: Here’s Vitaly Paley, chef owner of Paley’s Place in Portland, Oregan, on making corn shuck broth for soup:

“It’s important to keep the corn flavor pure. Most cooks would throw in a bunch of vegetables in the stock, and what you’d get is a vegetable stock with corn. I wanted to have a corny flavor in the end. We made a stock using the corn husks with a little onion, water and salt, and let it cook for about 45 minutes. What came out was the most amazing sweet broth. We added the corn, pureed it, and served it chilled. It was so sweet and full of corn flavor you would have sworn there were cream and sugar in it.” (quoted in The Flavor Bible)

The Flavor Bible cites basil as one of the best seasonings for corn, followed by celery (think lovage), chives, cilantro, dill and thyme. Turn the pages to lovage and you’ll find corn high on the list of flavor affinities.

 

 

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