Shrimp and Corn Chowder

April 4, 2008

The fortieth anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I performed at his memorial service in our high school with the first black teacher I had ever seen, Winfield Pate. He played piano, I played guitar. We sang “I Shall Not Be Moved.”


Buy shrimp in the shell. the shells are loaded with flavor. This is true for bones in meat and fowl, too. Clean the shrimp and save the shells, freeze them to make stock later, or roast them and then boil them to make a flavorful sauce for the dish. It takes a little longer, but what’s your rush? You want fast food?

Here’s how the trouble started:

On this early spring – in Vermont, late winter – evening, I was facing:

  • a bunch of fresh asparagus (which had briefly fallen below $2.99 a pound)
  • some broccoli crowns
  • a red pepper
  • a red onion
  • a can of yellow corn kernels
  • some light cream, this side of its expiration date
  • about a pound and a half of shrimp

and some:

  • fresh garlic
  • fresh ginger
  • hot pepper flakes
  • fresh grated nutmeg
  • smoked salt (marvelous ingredient, a gift from Robert Resnik)
  • fresh ground black pepper
  • dried hot red pepper flakes
  • Jamaican Jerk seasoning powder
  • Thai sweet-hot chili sauce (my own)

I set the corn to drain over a bowl, reserving the liquid for stock, and started cleaning and cutting the red onion and red pepper up into roughly corn kernel sized pieces.

I cleaned the broccoli and split the florets and cut it and the asparagus into about 1.5 inch length (roughly shrimp-sized) pieces.

I shelled the shrimp, saving the shells, and minced five or six cloves of garlic (I keep trying to put too much garlic into a dish – only done it once) and a bunch of fresh ginger root, and combined the shrimp, garlic, ginger and some smoked salt and black pepper in a bowl.

At this point, a little sherry wouldn’t have hurt, or some white wine, but I had neither. Not for me, you understand, but to splash on the shrimp.

Cooking I:

With all the ingredients prepared, heat up a pan or two.

I started heating up a large, heavy cast iron frying pan to receive the onions, red peppers and corn kernels.

And a medium-sized sauce pan to roast the shrimp shells.

Once the pans reach temperature, toss in a small pad of butter to brown and once it’s browned, add olive oil. [More oil to the saucepan for roasting the shrimp shells; less oil to the frying pan for the onion/pepper/corn mixture.]

Adding oil too soon stops the butter from developing that nice nutty flavor, so don’t rush this part. You’ll miss out on the flavor.

The onion/pepper/corn mixture should be cooked at a high temperature in a fairly dry pan, tossing and moving the pieces around frequently. A little blackening benefits both the corn and the red pepper; too much oil or liquid will cause them to sauté rather than roast and develop a little char.

Meanwhile, the shrimp shells go in the saucepan with a bit more oil, and should be moved around as they brown. This browning intensifies the flavors in the shells and makes a huge difference in the broth you’re building. Once they’ve browned a bit, you’ll want to remove the pan from the heat and let it cool off a bit, stirring the shells now and then to make sure they don’t burn with the residual heat. Once cooled, add a fair number of slices of fresh ginger, the Jamaican Jerk seasoning powder. Cover with the liquid drained off the corn kernels and a couple cups of water to the shells and return the pan to the heat.

Bring the roasted shells, et al, to a boil uncovered and simmer for ten or fifteen minutes, then cover them and let them rest as long as you can. When ready, you’ll strain out the shells for your compost pile and save the liquid for the broth. Let it cool a bit and add some light cream to this. Set it on low heat and grate some fresh nutmeg into the combined corn and shrimp shell liquid. [This will fool your guests into thinking there is bacon in the dish. I swear.] Stir the broth now and then to keep a skin from forming. Don’t boil it.

Cooking II:

When the onion/pepper/corn mixture is sparsely flecked with charred places and well-roasted, remove it to a larger sauce pan or stock pot. [This will, of course happen in the middle of your dealing with the shells. The shells can wait; won’t hurt them a bit.]

Bring the heat down a bit, rebutter with a small pad, add oil again as above, and when it’s at temperature, add the split broccoli florets and asparagus. Toss them and cover them with a stock pot lid. After a few moments, lift up the edge of the lid and spray some water under it with your handy kitchen spray bottle, trapping the steam under the lid. Let it cook for a minute or two. Check the color and do it again. When it’s bright green and softened just a bit, turn it out of the pan, adding it to the onion/pepper/corn mixture, which becomes the onion/pepper/corn/broccoli/ asparagus mixture. Scheez.

Bring the heat down a bit, rebutter with a small pad, add oil again as above, and when it’s at temperature, add the shrimp/garlic/ginger/smoked salt mixture. Grind some black pepper over it and toss in a few hot red pepper flakes for good measure.

Cook the shrimp mixture moving it constantly just until they start to go translucent, then turn them into a large sauce pan or stock pot with the onion/pepper/corn/broccoli/asparagus mixture.


Now, that big, heavy cast iron frying pan has been busy: roasting corn, red peppers and onions, the broccoli and asparagus, and finally the garlic/ginger/shrimp mixture. It would be a shame to let the intense flavors that are stuck to the bottom of that pan be washed down the sink. A damn shame, really. So:

Keeping that frying pan hot, pour the corn-shrimp shell-cream broth into the frying pan and make sure it gets hot, but not boiling. With a wooden spoon, stir any bits off the bottom of the pan into the broth. Add some Thai sweet-hot chili sauce, if you like heat.

Just this side of a boil, add the garlic/ginger/shrimp/onion/pepper/corn/broccoli/ asparagus mixture. Give it a quick stir. If the shrimp are really under done, you can let this sit for a minute, but not much longer. Those puppies overcook in a heartbeat and get tough as a sneaker. Serve it.

Next Day?

I bought a bunch of watercress, washed it, cut it in half crosswise and wilted it as I gently reheated the chowder. It was at this point that Barb wanted to photograph it.

Then, as we were finishing lunch she gently suggested that I should write about it for the blog. And, not receiving a response, she offered to put the blog back up on the site, if I’d write about it…

So, there you have it.

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