When the heat of late summer arrives, I crave chowder. Hot, creamy soup when it’s already blazing outside may sound ludicrous, but childhood summers spent down South reinforced in me a love of bubbling soups and broths that were at their best when flavored with peak season produce. Corn chowder is the obvious favorite, but 12 years spent living in the Northeast also brought me to the altar of clam chowder and potato chowder. All soups where bacon, milk and aromatics ground various sweet things with their characteristic creaminess and warmth.
This summer though, with a bumper crop of yellow summer squash on my counter due to an overzealous farmers market buy, I gazed at the yellow tubes like similarly-shaped corn cobs and thought “squash chowder!” This time of year, the tender squash is often shaved and eaten raw or grilled. Its flavor is somewhat unappealingly bland, requiring lots of oil or salt to make it taste distinct. Growing up, we ate it just because it was everywhere and cheap. I don’t think anyone actually craved it. Summer squash deserves better.
In comes this soup. Whereas you’d think cooking a sensitive vegetable like summer squash in milk and bacon fat would overwhelm it and cancel out its flavor, as we know from our friends corn and clams, it doesn’t. Rather, it brings out the surprising sweetness in the gourd, requiring a splash of vinegar at the end to keep it from veering into dessert sweetness. I keep the aromatics traditional because they already work well — onions, celery and, if you have them, fresh bay leaves. A final garnish of shaved patty pan squash (of course, you can just use more summer squash if you prefer) reminds you what you’re eating and brings a bit of freshness to this soup. It’s the ideal of summer in a bowl, heat and all.
Summer Squash Chowder
1 hour. Serves 6 to 8.
When summer squash isn’t in season, use zucchini or even butternut squash, which will become tender in the same time if cut into ¼-inch-thick pieces. If you want to make this soup vegan, simply omit the bacon, use 6 tablespoons of olive oil instead of the amount of butter called for below, and use almond or soy milk instead of whole milk.
- 8 strips bacon, roughly chopped
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped thyme
- 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 celery ribs, finely chopped
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
- 8 yellow summer squash (4 ¼ pounds), quartered lengthwise and cut crosswise into ½-inch-thick pieces
- 6 cups whole milk
- 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 patty pan squash (or ¼ summer squash)
- ¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- Heat the bacon in a large saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp, about 12 minutes. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and reserve for garnish, leaving the bacon fat in the pot.
- Melt the butter in the bacon fat, then add the thyme, garlic, celery, onion and bay leaf and cook, stirring occasionally, until the aromatics soften, about 6 minutes. Stir in the squash, then cover the pot partially, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the squash is softened and reduced in volume by one-third, about 15 minutes. Uncover, increase the heat to medium-high, and continue cooking, stirring as needed, until the liquid in the pot is concentrated and mostly evaporated, about 10 more minutes.
- Pour in the milk, and bring the chowder to a simmer. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, to marry flavors and reduce the milk slightly, about 10 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and then use an immersion or standing blender to puree the soup. Stir in the vinegar and season the soup with lots of salt and pepper.
- Just before serving, thinly shave the patty pan squash crosswise. Pour the soup into bowls and garnish each with a few slices of shaved patty pan, some of the reserved bacon and a sprinkling of parsley to serve.