Inspiration for cooking comes from lots of places: new cookbooks, magazine articles, restaurant meals. This week’s inspiration derived from a combination of factors: a recently published cookbook on a popular Asian condiment, the relatively small but excellent bounty of a community farmers market, and my mother’s garden.
Visiting my parents during Southern California’s growing season never fails to inspire my kitchen creativity. While my mom gives the tour of the garden, excitedly telling me about her “beautiful” homemade compost, I stare at her spring pea shoots and garlic scapes, imaging what delicious garden harvest dinner I’ll cook up that evening. But I was a little early this past trip for much more than strawberries from the garden, which I like to use to decorate plain yogurt, and local honey for breakfast, and the nearly endless supply of fresh herbs that burst from the top of a raised planter--marjoram, oregano, lemon verbena, thyme, and lemon balm--all ready to make their way into salads, sauces, and vinaigrettes.
The cookbook in question is not one I would normally gravitate to. But I am a true fan of the single subject it covers: Sriracha Sauce. Sriracha, that go-to brilliant red sauce made of chili peppers, garlics, sugar, and vinegar, has become about as common a flavoring in my kitchen as mustard or soy sauce. The fiery-tangy Thai-style sauce is as at home on a taco in lieu of Tapatio as it is on chicken wings in the place of a more traditional American-style hot sauce. It was only a matter of time before someone published a book on the subject.
In press releases on the book, author Randy Clemens has graciously provided readers with a very tempting recipe for “Fire Roasted Corn Chowder with Sriracha” (find it at http://blog.thesrirachacookbook.com). The ½ cup of Sriracha listed for a soup that likely feeds about 8 people might be a tad aggressive but the idea is a good one: traditional corn chowder made with fresh corn and red peppers, set off with a fiery top note and mellowed out with some cream at the end.
With that recipe lingering in the back of my brain, it was with great pleasure that I saw the first corn and red peppers of the season at the Hemet, California farmers market. Hemet has not been known as much of a culinary destination outside of being the one-time residence of the famous American food writer M.F.K. Fisher. However, Hemet’s positioning on an agricultural basin with dairy farms stretching to the west of the valley and orange groves to the east, makes it the seemingly perfect spot for a bounty of seasonal produce.
Back home from the expedition to the farmers market and the local Henry’s Market for additional supplies, I set to work making a main course version of the spicy corn chowder developed by the Sriracha Cookbook author. As in the published recipe, I grilled a couple of ears of white corn while sautéing onions and red pepper. I husked the remaining ears and added them to the pot with thyme and bay leaf from my mother’s garden, crushed fresh garlic, chicken stock, and two heaping tablespoons full of garlic chili sauce, a chunkier version of Sriracha with similar flavors but visible chili flakes. The whole thing simmered until the corn was cooked through and the flavors married.
Meanwhile, I marinated a few shrimp and grilled them up alongside the two ears of corn. The simmered soup went from chunky to smooth with the help of a hand blender. The grilled corn, now removed from the cob, was stirred into the blended soup along with salt and pepper to taste. Each bowl of surprisingly red corn chowder was topped with some grilled shrimp and a little cilantro for color.
Inspired dinner from week to week can be a challenge. But with a world full of information, creative cooks, and bountiful produce, something different, say market fresh corn chowder seasoned with Asian chili sauce, might be just the antidote to dinner doldrums. Four bowls scraped clean and a helping of seconds later, I’d say my family couldn’t agree more.
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