A few weeks ago, I had to test a lobster chowder recipe for a corporate client. I make lobster stews and shellfish soups occasionally when I’m back east, usually with my husband’s family, but I rarely traipse off to find lobster in Seattle. Everything about it felt wrong: calling eight stores to find pre-picked lobster meat, choosing lobsters over crabs at the fish market when that first approach failed, rifling through my pantry for just the right ingredients while my sister, bless her heart, helped me crack shells and pick, pick, pick. In the end, it tasted good, but it didn’t taste right. And more than anything, it simply wasn’t the lobster chowder I wanted to make.
Then I forgot about lobster chowder.
But last week, back in Maine, it resurfaced—first at my friend Kathy’s house, where when we walked in, at 10 a.m., there was a pot simmering on the stove, rich with cream and homemade lobster stock, bright with summer corn. Lobster, I thought. Wow. Then it showed up at Grace, Portland’s giant-church-turned-foodie-alter (the big open kitchen is literally where the alter once stood), doused with chanterelle mushrooms, corn, and local mussels. At 50 Local, the awesome new Kennebunk bistro that proves the locavore movement is capable of rooting itself into the tiniest communities, a lobster carbonara reminded me once again that few foods can simultaneously taste as rich and as simple as lobster does.
It’s funny how when we live in one place, we appreciate its delicacies, but we celebrate them best when we’ve lived without them for a while. Last week, in Maine, lobster chowder seemed worth celebrating. We made it the way it should be, with lobster from a pound in Cape Porpoise owned by a rickety-looking old woman who carries fresh blueberry pies six at a time. There was corn stock involved, made with cobs fresh from a local farmers’ market, and a whisp of fresh basil, because it was there, and the tiny Maine potatoes my son rolled around on the floor for an hour first. (Here’s the part I omitted from the recipe, but I’m sure it made a difference: Place the potatoes in a strainer on a wood floor. Take them out and put them back in approximately ten thousand times, licking them and rolling them around in any available dust before returning them to the strainer. Wash thoroughly.)
We ate the chowder as the sun exhaled, all of us exhausted from a long, bright day.
Between testing and tasting, my stomach has had an incredibly busy schedule these days. (Summer is the best time to feel sorry for a freelance food writer.) But sometime, before the days get short, I’ll make this incredibly light chowder again with corn and crab. And if a few mussels sneak their way in, I certainly won’t complain.
Made light and summery with homemade corn stock and shards of fresh basil, this lobster concoction hardy qualifies as chowder. (There isn’t even any cream in it.) But it’s summer. Who wants something heavy?
Chop the lobster meat how you prefer to eat it – in small pieces or big chunks.
You west coasters could substitute crab for the lobster meat, if you’d like.
TIME: About 2 hours, start to finish
MAKES: 8 servings
8 cobs fresh corn, shucked
2 medium Vidalia onions, peeled
3 big sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
4 slices (about 1/4 pound) applewood-smoked bacon, chopped into 1/4” pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 (8-ounce) bottle clam juice
2 pounds small red-skinned potatoes, skins left on, chopped into 1/2” pieces
1 pound lobster meat, chopped
2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
First, make corn stock: Place a corn cob on a cutting board so it points away from you. Using a knife, cut three or four rows of kernels off the cob on the side closest to your knife hand. Roll the cob away from the knife and cut the next few rows off. Continue until all the corn has been cut off, then stand the empty corn cob on one end and use the back of the knife to scrape down the cut sides of the corn, pushing the milk and whatever’s left from each kernel onto the cutting board. Set the corn and mash aside in one big bowl, the cob in a big stock pot, and repeat with the remaining corn.
Add one onion, split down the middle, and the thyme and bay to the stock pot with the cobs. Cover with 8 cups cold water, bring to a boil, then simmer for 30 minutes, uncovered. Set aside. (You can do this up to a few days ahead, let cool completely, then strain and refrigerate, covered, until ready to use.)
When the stock is done, heat a large soup pot over medium-low heat. Add the bacon, and cook until crisp, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. While the bacon cooks, finely chop the remaining onion. Transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate, leaving the drippings in the pan, and set the bacon aside.
Add the chopped onion, season with salt and pepper, and cook and stir until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the flour, stir to coat all the onion pieces, and cook, stirring, for one minute. Add the clam juice, a little at a time, whisking until all the juice has been added and the mixture has thickened, about 2 minutes. Add the potatoes and 6 cups of the corn stock, bring to a simmer, and cook until the potatoes are tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the lobster, corn and corn mash, and milk, return the soup to a simmer, and remove from the heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in the reserved bacon and basil just before serving.