The other night, I swooned over an entrée at Spring Hill. It wasn’t so much the salmon, seared crisp on the outside, hot all the way through but still perfectly puddingish at the center. Or that kale, massaged into tenderness, kissed with just enough acidic bite, that someone nested under the fish. No, my heart beat hardest for the corn under all that – ‘creamed’ corn, the menu said.
I wondered, at the time, how much ambiguity there really could be about whether something is creamed or not. I mean, it has cream, or it doesn’t, right? Why the quotes?
In a bite, I understood: The corn had the consistency of great creamed corn, each kernel whole, but still connected to its cousins by a velvety liquid. Only the liquid, instead of cream, was something sweeter, something more pure. Something more corn.
Maybe the chef had juiced corn, separately, and cooked the whole kernels in the juice? The liquid wasn’t exactly clear; it was milky, only there was no real dairy flavor.
It occurred to me that he might have used the corn’s own “milk” – that sweet, creamy layer left on the cob when you cut the kernels off by hand. When you scrape the corn milk off a cob – whether it’s really called “milk,” I can’t say, that’s just what I’ve always called it – it looks like pale yellow Cream of Wheat, dumped onto a cutting board. Try it with a spoon, you’ll see. It tastes like sweet, summery cream, made of corn.
I picked up a few cobs at the farmers’ market, determined to channel that sweetness into a soup. I wanted something that would be as good cold as it was hot, with a pinch of surprise that would make that vegetal sweetness really stand out. I chose rosemary – sweet in its own way, but piney enough to hopefully make me appreciate the corn’s flavor all that much more.
It didn’t take long at all. I just simmered the rosemary in a bit of milk, and squirreled it away in the fridge overnight. (Note to self: Must remember to try that milk again this winter, as a base for hot chocolate.) When I added it to the soup pot, with melting shallots, and all the cobs’ edibles, it sent up a puff of rosemary air. I worried there’d be too much rosemary.
The next day, when I went to serve the soup – cold, because the day got good and warm – the rosemary was much more timid. Gone, actually. But when I let the soup roll around in my mouth, to heat up a bit, the pineyness came back again, shy but present. I added a dab of the pesto I made with my neighbor’s monster basil, though, and the rosemary puff came back. Just a little. Just enough.
My best little taster came over for lunch, in her corn-colored shirt. She played with my corn-colored monster, who demanded a baby bowl of soup.
I should warn you: Monsters don’t like corn soup. You will, though.
Though I’m not sure what its official name is, I find what I call the corn “milk” – the juicy, creamy roots of the kernels left attached to corn cobs after you cut the actual kernels off – to be sweeter than the kernels themselves. Here, I scrape this “milk” off the cob with the back of a knife, and add it to a smooth corn soup whose creamy texture has nothing to do with actual cream. For a stronger herbal flavor, increase the rosemary to 2 or 2 1/2 tablespoons.
TIME: 20 minutes active time
MAKES: 2 regular or 4 small servings
2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
4 ears sweet corn, shucked
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 tablespoons chopped shallot
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Basil pesto, for garnish (optional)
The day before you plan to serve the soup, heat the milk and rosemary to a simmer in a small saucepan. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate overnight.
Using a sharp knife, cut the kernels off the corn cobs and transfer to a mixing bowl. Using the back of the knife, scrape all the remaining corn bits and corn milk from the cobs, and add this corn “milk” to the bowl.
(Here’s a photo of one cob after being cut, next to a cob after being scraped.)
Strain the rosemary milk into the bowl, too, and set aside. Discard the rosemary.
Place the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. When melted, add the shallot, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add the corn mixture, season with salt and pepper, and bring to a simmer. Cook for 3 minutes. Carefully puree the soup in a blender (or using a stick blender, if you have one), season to taste, and serve warm, or chill and serve cold. Garnish with pesto, if desired.