Channeling Grandma Ruth
My dad’s mom – known to me as Grandma Ruth – was an awesome cook. Growing up, I was frequently treated to her amazing food. My top three favorite Grandma Ruth dishes? Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes, and corn chowder. Oooh, and her salsa, chicken noodle soup, and apple crisp. And an amazing blueberry dessert.
As I grew older and into my own kitchen, visits with my Grams inevitably turned into conversations about cooking. We would discuss what we’d made recently and I would grill her about ingredients, techniques, and measurements. But every time I tried to pin Grandma down with specifics, she evaded. Truthfully, I think that those conversations shaped the kind of cook I became – because I so desperately wanted to recreate her meals in my home, I entered the kitchen armed with only her guidelines.
Hesitantly at first, but with increasing confidence, I realized that cooking is a fluid, creative process – the more you trust yourself, the better you’ll do. You may not know it from just reading this blog, but I’m not really a recipe-follower. I look at most recipes as a jumping-off point for a dish – some may offer fantastic tips or techniques, others may inspire a combination of ingredients that you wouldn’t have otherwise thought of, but very few need to be followed to the letter (in my kitchen at least!).
This corn chowder is the perfect example of that very process. Grandma always made it with a combination of canned corn and creamed corn, and I always loved it that very way – until I went to make it myself one day and found it too sweet. I tried again, several times, and then adjusted. Now I make it with fresh corn (or frozen, depending on the season).
A conversation with Grandma about how to make her corn chowder went something like this:
“Cut up some bacon and cook it in a big pot.”
“How much bacon? A pound?”
“Oh, not that much.”
“Maybe more than that. After it’s mostly cooked, take the bacon out but keep some of the grease in the pan. Add in a diced onion and some potatoes, and some salt and pepper, and cook for a bit, then add in a bit of water and cover the pan for a little while.”
“How many potatoes? How much water? How long do you cook them?”
“Just a bit of water, you know, enough to help things soften up. I like to shred some carrots in there too, for color. Then add one can each of canned and creamed corn and chicken stock, let that simmer a bit. Add some milk in at the very end.”
So I returned to my kitchen, and I did just that. And you know what? I’ve never had too many potatoes, not enough bacon, or undercooked onions in my chowder. It just works, every time. I will offer a guideline recipe below, but I encourage you veer from it as much as you see fit. Last night I added a couple of chopped fresh jalapenos to the pot; and all I could think was that Grandma would have loved every spicy spoonful of it were she still here to join us for dinner.
Grandma Ruth’s Corn Chowder
- 3/4 lb. bacon, cut into pieces
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 lb. potatoes, cut into 1 inch pieces
- 3-4 carrots, shredded
- 6 ears of corn, kernels cut from cob
- 1 quart chicken stock
- 3/4 cup milk
In a large pot over medium heat, cook the bacon until crisp. Remove bacon from pan with slotted spoon and pour out all but about one tablespoon of the bacon grease.
Return the pot to the burner and add the onions and potatoes along with a generous seasoning of salt and pepper. Cook, uncovered, for 5 minutes, then cover pan partway and cook for another 10 minutes or so until potatoes are almost cooked through.
Add the carrots and corn to the pot, stir to combine. Add the chicken stock. If liquid does not cover the ingredients add in enough water to do so. Bring mixture to a simmer. Cook for 10-15 more minutes. Stir in milk and serve immediately.