During summer, dinner could be as casual and carefree as a backyard picnic or barbecue. But the start of the school year means a return to at least a slightly more formal sit-down dinner most weeknights. If this shifting of gears is catching you by surprise, consider reaching for some "cheating ingredients" to help you get dinner on the table without a hitch.
This delicious chowder recipe makes liberal use of two of my favourite cheating ingredients: store-bought rotisserie chicken and salsa.
I've never met a rotisserie chicken I didn't like. They are paragons of versatility. You can heat one up and pretend you roasted it, or shred it and add it to all kinds of recipes, from chilies and sandwiches to salads and soups. During the hectic fall dinner season, I almost always have a rotisserie chicken in the fridge. And when the meal is over, I hold on to all the bones and scraps, stockpiling them in the freezer for that rainy day when I have a little extra time to make a stock. Those bones make a killer stock.
Salsa is another ingredient I like to keep handy at all times. An all-purpose condiment that's replaced ketchup in many households, there's a salsa these days for every taste: fresh or jarred, mild, medium or hot. And almost all of them are mercifully low in sweeteners. Use the salsa of your choice to set the spiciness of this soup.
Fresh corn is not a cheating ingredient, especially not in August and September. On the contrary, it's one of late summer's great stars, built into this recipe not only because it's absurdly good — try eating freshly picked corn raw right off the cob! — but also because the starch in the corn helps to thicken the broth.
Indeed, after you've cut all of the kernels off of the cob, you should scrape the cob itself with the dull side of a knife. The milky liquid that results is another soup thickener (as are the potatoes in the recipe). Finally, at the end of the cooking process, I pureed some of the vegetables — the onions, as well as corn and the potatoes — to make the soup creamy without adding any cream.
I recommend garnishing this soup with homemade tortilla strips. They're delicious, a snap to cook up, and both fresher and lower in fat than store-bought tortilla chips. Then again, if you've run out of time, use the store-bought baked chips.
The real beauty of this soup is that it's a hearty and complete meal in a single bowl. You won't need to serve anything else on a weeknight and it leaves you with very few dishes to clean up.
SOUTHWESTERN CORN AND CHICKEN CHOWDER WITH TORTILLA CRISPS
Start to finish: 1 hour (30 minutes active)
Three 6-inch corn tortillas
2 teaspoons ground cumin, divided
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup finely chopped yellow onion
1/2 pound red bliss or Yukon gold potatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 cups fresh corn kernels (or thawed frozen)
4 cups chicken broth
3 cups chopped or shredded rotisserie chicken
1 cup purchased salsa
1 to 2 tablespoons lime juice
Chopped fresh cilantro or basil, to garnish (optional)
Heat the oven to 400 F.
Arrange the corn tortillas on a baking sheet, then mist them with cooking spray.
In a small bowl, combine 1/2 teaspoon of the cumin, the chili powder and a pinch of salt. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the tortillas. Using a pizza cutter, cut the tortillas into thin strips. Bake them on the middle shelf of the oven until they are golden and crisp, about 6 to 8 minutes. Set aside to cool.
In a large saucepan over medium, heat the vegetable oil. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until golden, about 5 minutes. Add the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin and cook, stirring, for another minute.
Add the potatoes, corn and chicken broth, bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the potato is tender. Transfer 1 1/2 cups of the mixture (mostly solids) to a blender and carefully blend until smooth. Return the mixture to the saucepan, add the chicken and salsa and cook until just heated through. Add salt and lime juice, to taste, and water, if necessary, to achieve the desired consistency.
Divide between 4 serving bowls and garnish each portion with some of the tortilla strips and cilantro, if desired.
Nutrition information per serving: 400 calories; 110 calories from fat (28 per cent of total calories); 12 g fat (2 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 85 mg cholesterol; 39 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 10 g sugar; 34 g protein; 1,140 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."