I totally respect rules about food. Italians, I think, might be the kings of this habit: No grated cheese on fish pasta! No cappuccinos after breakfast! No cream in pasta carbonara! And sit down when the pasta is ready and eat it right away, for crying out loud, not 10 minutes later after you've finished washing your hands or finishing your milk or both, what's the matter with you anyway? (Oh, Italian children. How you suffer, I know. Console yourself with this: one day, you too can become a tyrant in the kitchen. Being a grown-up is so sweet.)
So I get it when other people say things like a real bouillabaisse must be made with rascasse. If you don't have rascasse, you don't have bouillabaisse. Or, hmm, that a real Bavarian pretzel cannot be eaten alone, unless you're some kind of sissy. It must always be accompanied by Weißwurst and sweet mustard (and beer, if we're being really exacting). Or, as Pete Wells pointed out the other day, that real chowder can be made only with seafood known to the Pilgrims, quite a lot of it indeed, and potatoes. No discussions, no protestations, no nothing.
Very, very luckily for all of us, though, Pete seems to be an accomodating kind of food editor and instead of indoctrinating his children with rules about food (like, er, the people in my family), he quite willingly gave in to their tastes and fashioned this soup (he calls it chowder) that is totally, seriously, deeply (all rules aside) delicious. Hey, old-time readers! I'd go so far as to say that this one's lamination-worthy. Boom! How exciting is that?
And it turns out that it's pretty fun cooking, too. At least for those of us who like to futz around in the kitchen (this one is worth the futz!). You make this neat little shrimp stock, first, using shrimp shells and corncobs and basil stems. Doesn't that sound rather old-fashioned and glamorous? While I made it, I kept wishing I was in peeptoe heels and pearls, smoking a cigarette and shouting into the other room at my dinner companion getting drunk on a gimlet, instead of listening to the radio and padding around the kitchen in a pair of cuffed khakis and Chucks. In fact, that shrimp stock might be the best part about this soup.
After that, you cook together garlic, onions, carrots and fennel, which just seems like such an ingenious addition since it infuses the soup with the faintest (barely, barely perceptible!) hint of aniseed (sort of like Pernod in the afore-mentioned bouillabaisse, which is all just very culturally referential and cute). Then in goes the fancy stock and a bunch of cubed potatoes, half of which you subsequently mash to thicken the soup, a shower of fresh corn (bing! Forget what I said about the shrimp stock! Is this corn the best part of the soup or what?), a handful of canned tomatoes (squeeze them into bits with your hands!), and a bay leaf. Away that concoction simmers while you munch on pickles or crackers or whatever you munch on when you're hungry and dinner still isn't ready.
Don't forget the hot pepper! Sheesh. I take that back about the corn. The hot pepper might be the best part about this soup.
Then, when the whole thing is cooked and thickened and fragrant and driving you seriously batty with its smell, you turn off the heat and drop in an entire plate of chopped shrimp. The shrimp cook in the residual heat of the soup, leaving them tender and sweet and fantastic. That might be the best about this soup. No, seriously. Except for the crowning glory of sliced basil on top. Right? Sliced basil is the best.
I loved this chowder, thick and savory and sweet and fragrant with summer. As far as I'm concerned, traditional chowder can take a hike. I'd rather eat this stuff any day of the week. Don't people say that rules were made to be broken? I'm going to leave the hand-wringing to the New Englanders.
Thank goodness, too, because I left out the bacon. *Ducks* Oh, and next time? I'd only use half the shrimp. *Ducks again*
Red Shrimp Chowder with Corn
Serves 4 to 6
4 cups fish stock, clam broth or water
2 pounds shrimp, shelled, chopped into pieces roughly 1/2-inch thick, shells reserved (1 pound would be plenty, too)
4 ears corn, shucked, kernels cut off, cobs and kernels reserved
2 basil sprigs, leaves cut into fine ribbons, stems reserved
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 pound bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (I left this out)
1 large onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 to 4 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 celery stalk, cut into 1/4-inch dice (I left this out, too)
Half a fennel bulb, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 bay leaf
Red pepper flakes, to taste
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, chopped, juice reserved
Freshly ground black pepper
1. In a medium pot, bring the fish stock, clam broth or water to a boil with the shrimp shells, corncobs and basil stems and simmer for about 20 minutes.
2. In a large pot set over medium heat, melt the butter and fry the bacon in it. When the bacon is crisp, fish it out with a slotted spoon and set it aside. Fry the onion, garlic, celery, fennel and carrots in the hot fat until softened, about 10 minutes. Season with salt.
3. Strain the shrimp-flavored broth into the pot. Add the corn kernels, potatoes, bay leaf and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil, cover the pot, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes.
4. Using the back of a wooden spoon, crush a third to a half of the potato chunks against the side of the pot. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and juice, return to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes more.
5. Add the shrimp, stir well, taste and adjust the seasoning, adding salt, black pepper and more red pepper flakes to taste. (The shrimp will cook from the heat of the soup.) Ladle into bowls and sprinkle with the basil ribbons and some bacon.