The "kernel," if you will, for this idea came to me when I was perusing Carol Blymire's blog, Alinea at Home, in which Carol charts her way through Detroit homeboy Grant Achatz' cookbook. She recently tried her hand at Grant's liquified version of caramel popcorn, and her description of the recipe immediately struck me as an interesting base for chowder (minus the caramel foam, of course). After sifting through a few chowder recipes online, I cobbled together a pretty good formula, which I present to you now...
1/2 C popcorn
5 C milk
2 C cream
1 - 1 lb. salmon fillet, skin removed and coarsely chopped
1 large leek (white part only), chopped and rinsed
1/2 celery root, diced
1 small fennel bulb (or half a large one), chopped
1 large yellow potato, peeled and diced
1/4 lb. bacon, chopped
2 bay leaves
4 or 5 sprigs of thyme
Juice of half a lemon
1 Tbsp. salt
1 tsp. fresh ground pepper
Peanut oil for frying
Heat about 2 Tbsp. of oil in a large saucepan over medium high heat, until the oil begins to ripple, and add the popcorn:
Put the lid on the pot and let the popcorn do its thing. When this slows to a few pops per minute, remove from the heat. This is what you'll end up with:
Transfer the popcorn to a stockpot, and add the milk and the cream (henceforth referred to simply as "dairy"):
Heat on high until the dairy just begins to foam, back down the heat to low, and simmer for 20 minutes. While this is happening, heat 1 Tbsp of oil in a large saute pan over medium high. Add the bacon and fry until a good amount of the fat has rendered out. Remove the bacon, let it cool, and feed it to your dog. Add the leek, celery root and fennel to the oil and rendered fat and saute until just caramelized (I have to interject here to proclaim that leek, celery root and fennel are the new holy trinity. This combination of vegetables is nothing short of amazing):
Cover the pan, and kill the heat. While the vegetables continue to cook via residual heat, parboil the potato in another saucepan for ten minutes, or until just fork tender. Meanwhile, puree the popcorn/dairy mixture in a blender or food processor, or with a stick blender, and strain out the pulp through a cheesecloth lined strainer. Add the leek, celery root and fennel, along with the bay leaves and thyme, to the strained dairy, bring just back to the boil (beginning to foam), back heat down to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat, fish out the herbs, and puree. Bring the dairy and vegetables back to medium, and add the potato, salmon, salt, pepper and lemon juice. Cook until the salmon is done, about five to seven minutes. Plate and eat.
So, how was it, you ask... Fantastic! The popcorn lent a nice subtle roasted corn flavor, as well as a lot of body from all that starch. It didn't have the briny quality of a typical New England clam chowder, and it was HELLA thick. I liked it this way, but replacing a cup or two of the milk with clam juice or shellfish stock to begin with would thin down the consistency a bit, and bring the flavor a little closer to a traditional East Coast chowder. So play with it, and tell me how it turns out...