You could argue that the best way to enjoy a tomato—or a carrot, or an ear of corn—at its peak is uncooked and practically unadorned. And you’d be right. What is better than that August tomato, warmed by the sun, picked from its vine and showered with a few flakes of salt? The ear of corn that’s snapped from its stalk tastes best right there among the rows—raw and as juicy as a peach. The carrot? Even the carrot is sweetest when it first emerges from underground, never mind those flecks of dirt.
Indeed, this is how we like to start any dinner at our Meadow Lark table: the farm’s harvest at its prime, with nothing more than a glug of olive oil or a dab of aioli. But then, our palates seek balance. Something creamy would be nice, something reassuring and kind. In our menus, this is the place for soup.
Our favorite soup to prepare is an honest soup—one that honors the principal ingredient by pairing it with very few others. Take a sweet corn soup, for instance. Butter, onions and salt give it a savory backbone and play with the corn’s sweetness. We use water instead of stock, so as not to interfere with what the corn itself has to offer. And we add a little satchel of aromatics: a few twigs of thyme, some black peppercorns, a whole, dried cayenne chile. It’s that simple.
How much, you ask? Well, that’s up to you. We use few onions of the highest quality so that they can make their contribution without overwhelming the corn. For ten ears of corn, say, we’ll use one large sweet onion and a stick of unsalted, cultured butter. We love butter. We gently melt the butter before adding the chopped onions and a good amount of salt, then then keep the pot covered. The onions begin to weep; their tears emulsify the butter, producing a sweet-smelling, gently simmering, onion-y stew. This is a good place for the satchel to be. We prepare it as soon as the onions are in the pot, laying a few twigs of thyme, a smattering of black peppercorns and a whole dried cayenne chili, cracked in a tight fist, on a square of cheesecloth and roll it up into a neat package with a few wraps of butcher’s twine. The longer the satchel can bathe in the soup, the better.
While the onions simmer, we prepare the sweet corn. Stand an ear of shucked corn vertically inside a wide, shallow bowl, we slice the kernels off the ears, top to bottom. It’s a shame to discard the cobs, still full of flavor and dripping with corn juice. For a sweet corn soup, we add the cobs to a pot of simmering water to extract their flavor. This will be the water used to make the soup.
When the onions are soft—and before they dare take on any color—we add the corn kernels. We like to give the kernels a few moments here with the butter and onions before adding the corn water to cover the pot’s contents by about an inch. Its easy thin a thick soup, but the reverse is not true without some kind of unwanted trickery.
Once the pot has reached a boil, we simmer it for only a short time—we don’t want the flavors to become tired and muddled. Then we ladle it into a blender—taking care to fish out the satchel—and give it a good, long whirl. Passing the blended soup through a chinois, that conical sieve with a very fine mesh, is what makes the soup creamy, without the addition of cream.
We always make our soup before lunch, so it has time to settle into its new self by dinnertime. Then we heat it up for a cool evening, or serve it chilled if the sun is still hot overhead. It might like a twist of black pepper or a zigzag of olive oil, or maybe even a spoonful of its former self on top: a handful of corn kernels thrown into a skillet with butter and thyme and a dice of foraged porcini that share the corn’s season. Or maybe a little pesto, with toasted nuts, or not. Or maybe nothing at all.
This humble approach works for so many of our favorite crops: for tomatoes and for carrots, of course, but consider also turnips or kohlrabi in early summer; zucchini or yellow squash at the peak of the season; celery root or pumpkins in fall. With so few ingredients, each one begs to be of exceptional flavor. While Beethoven was not speaking of vegetables when he said that about the pure in heart, when it comes to soup that is honest and pure, the same can surely be said of a carrot, a tomato, or an ear of sweet corn.