Shrimp, Corn, and Squash Soup

Nothing makes me crabbier than fall. That cheerfully crisp weather, that can-do spirit that forces you off the porch and into some useful activity–it’s all too horrible to contemplate for very long.

This year, though, good news has buoyed me up, helping me to face fall’s dreadful enthusiasm with a sense of hope: The Louisiana shrimpers are headed out into the Gulf again.

For me, the Gulf oil spill has loomed all summer like . . . well, like the black oily cloud it is, seeping into the fragile marshes, threatening the livelihoods of shrimpers and fishermen even more than cheap seafood from China, oozing into delicate marine life and causing damage we may not fully realize for years. Still, earlier this week the shrimpers were out on the water again. They didn’t catch much. But there’s a little hope.

To celebrate, I’m offering this soup recipe that I developed at the beach, using these gorgeous shrimp from the North Carolina coast, caught the same day they were served. Fred’s little camera doesn’t begin to do them justice.

This dish is a lot less complicated than it looks. If you can boil water, you can make the shrimp stock, and it cooks while you prepare the other ingredients. Besides, there’s almost no way to mess up the combination of fresh corn, squash, and shrimp–a hearty yet delicately flavored combination that may well be the perfect summer dish, just in time for summer to end.

You can, of course, cheat by using frozen shrimp and corn and substituting water or chicken broth for the shrimp stock. But you’ll regret it. And you need to help the shrimpers get back out there.

Shrimp, Corn and Squash Soup

Serves 6

Kernels from 6 shucked ears of fresh sweet corn (do not substitute frozen)
6 small to medium yellow crookneck squash, quartered lengthwise and sliced (may substitute 1 – 2 small zucchini for 1 – 2 of the squash for added color)
2 tbsp. olive oil or butter
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 fresh jalapenos, minced (optional)
1 lb. large fresh shrimp, peeled, deveined, and cut into 3 pieces each; shrimp peels and tails set aside in bowl
1 15 oz. can evaporated milk
Salt to taste

Begin by making the shrimp stock. Place shrimp peels and tails in medium saucepan. Add enough water to cover by about 1 inch. Bring to boil on high heat. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer for about 20 minutes. Drain stock into bowl, discard peels and tails, and set aside.

While stock is boiling, sauté onion in olive oil in large pot on medium high heat until translucent. Add garlic and jalapenos and stir. Add squash and sauté until tender, about 5 – 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Pulse in food processor until very finely chopped. Return to pot. Add corn. Cover with shrimp stock and increase heat to high; add water just to cover if there is not enough stock. Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium low. Add evaporated milk, cover, and simmer until corn is tender. Cooking times can vary significantly depending on the type of corn you use, anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes; taste periodically until the corn is tender but not starchy. When corn is cooked, reduce heat to lowest possible flame. Add shrimp and cover; cook about 3 minutes or until shrimp are cooked.

Hamburger a la Fred

Upon returning from the beach, the mood in the Wise household has tanked. Hurled from the glamorous freedom of vacation back into the plodding reality of ordinary life and work, we’ve both been a bit downtrodden, even grumpy.

My own irritability has been exacerbated by a sprained ankle I acquired on the way back from the beach–not by slipping on a sundae dropped by a careless toddler at McDonald’s, or in a 12-car pileup on I-40, or even by tripping over the entryway at a rest stop. No, I managed to do this in the car. Sitting down. With my feet up.

After examining my X-rays, the doctor at Duke Urgent Care explained that the damage occurred because of an old injury, an avulsion fracture, in which a ligament had torn and pulled a little piece of bone off with it. I well remembered the injury, from my senior year at Duke in 1987, during a volleyball game held as part of a scholarship competition at Vanderbilt Law School. (I did not win the game or the scholarship. I suspect the committee questioned the sense of a candidate who could not bear the thought of not wearing her brand-new five-inch heels to the interview and so wore the heel on one foot and a splint with a cotton sock on the other.) And the results apparently are still with me, because it seems that the ankle is more susceptible to additional injury–including holding my ankle in a stretched position a little too long.

I’m now splinted and wrapped, able to wear only flat sandals to work, and not really in any shape to stand in the kitchen and cook. So Fred stepped bravely into the breach, offering to try his hand at dinner tonight.

As he did a couple of years ago, the last time he was allowed in the kitchen, he made hamburgers. This time, he consulted Mark Bittman for starters but decided that he wasn’t going to grind his own meat. He used 2/3 lb. ground beef for two patties, added a splash of Worchestershire sauce and salt to each one, and fried the two thick patties with some jalapenos and garlic. We debated the merits of bread vs. bun, and Fred’s preference (sourdough bread) won out because he was cooking. I hate to admit it, but he was right. Served with fresh tomato slices and onion, the flavor of the meat stood out, with the bread a nice complement to t he flavor rather than an overwhelming presence. And we ate them so fast it didn’t have time to get soggy.

I’m still grumpy, but I’m grateful that I have a husband who takes care of me when I most need it.

I’m at the beach this week with the dozen or so friends I’ve been vacationing with for the last 12 years. We’re a group of food lovers, and over the years we’ve had memorable dishes, from an epic production of fried chicken to peach pie laced with bacon fat. (I believe in the goodness of that pie despite what everyone else says.)

Now, though, with only one member of our group under 40, things have begun to change. Suddenly, food issues of all sorts are putting a damper on our once free-wheeling, fat-laden extravaganzas:

1. Following her husband’s 40th birthday party a few years ago, in which he stored a whole pig carcass on ice in the bathtub for a few days, M.H. has, understandably, returned to her early vegetarianism.

2. Janice and her son, Julian, are gluten-free because her doctor has told her that she has the gene that causes celiac disease and that she needs to avoid wheat. (Her husband occasionally refers to the doctor as “that quack.”) She also avoids dairy.

As an aside, I caught Janice giving cod liver oil to poor Julian yesterday. My attempts to infuse humor into the situation: “I can’t believe you’re giving him cod liver oil!” went unappreciated. “It would be better to help rather than hinder the situation here,” Janice said. I decided it was best to leave Julian to the therapist he’ll be seeing in about 15 years.

Janice brings a lot of her own food.

3. Donna and Mara do not eat seafood.

4. Everyone (except me, it seems) has an idiosyncratic aversion of one sort or another, including raw tomatoes, tapioca pudding, mayonnaise, Brussels sprouts, liver, rutabagas, coffee, coconut, olives and mushrooms.

We had for years managed to work around these dietary predilections with minimal fuss and only the occasional blow-up.

But then Shannon and Carol chimed in.

I was planning dinner for our first night and sent an e-mail to the group asking them to remind me of their dietary restrictions. This was a silly idea in the first place, akin to stubbing my toe on purpose or giving myself a series of paper cuts. So I deserve what came next.

Carol wrote back the next day. In sum, her message said that they didn’t eat grains in any form—rice, wheat, spelt, millet, bulghur, you name it–any kind of bean, or dairy. Apparently, she and Shannon have embarked on the Paleolithic diet, in which they attempt to eat like our Paleolithic ancestors, on the theory that this is what humans originally evolved to eat before agriculture stepped in and ruined everything. (Shannon apparently picked it up when he was training for a bike race.) In essence, this means they eat only meat, vegetables, and fruit.

There’s probably no point in commenting on the wisdom of adopting the diet of a people whose average life span was about 35, or on why meat would not be considered “processed” food. All I can really say is that approaching dinner, I faced the following SAT-like logic problem:

1. M.H. eats seafood, grains, and dairy but not meat.
2. Donna and Mara eat meat, grains, and dairy but not seafood.
3. Janice eats meat and seafood but not wheat or dairy.
4. Carol and Shannon eat meat and seafood but not grains of any kind or dairy.

Our fragile equilibrium had collapsed. Were I to attempt to prepare a meal that took into account everyone’s dietary restrictions, we would be eating only vegetables, fruit, and eggs. And there are only so many omelets you can eat in a week. (Later, I learned that Mara doesn’t eat eggs.)

Poor Shannon and Carol. Over the next several days, e-mails flew back and forth mercilessly, including one in which Rocco declared that he was feeling very out of style as an omnivore and was therefore going to try his hand at dietary restrictions by keeping kosher and requiring us to get separate kitchens for meat and dairy at the beach house.

I wasn’t terribly surprised when Shannon and Carol decided to stay home. They claim it was because they’d just moved and started new jobs and didn’t want to haul two small children on a cross-country odyssey just then, but I know better. They were afraid we’d slip some millet into their vegetables.

On Saturday night, we ate tacos. Everyone was happy.