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Smoky corn & sweet potato chowder

We woke in the dark, piled on layers of clothes and loaded cameras in the car. We gassed up and fearlessly set out in the sub-arctic temperatures of sunny Arizona, our hearts tilting toward Grand Canyon. Because it was dark and there was little else to look at, I became fascinated with the external temperature indicator on the dash. We left Sedona at 22°F. We climbed higher, through Oak Creek Canyon in the blue black frigid darkness and the temperature kept dropping. I couldn’t resist taking pictures of the numbers on the dash. 15°, 9°, 0°. Past Flagstaff, we changed directions, I think we were heading north, but I know we were heading colder. Somewhere up there on this wide white expanse, the temperature dropped to -15°. That’s 15°  below ZERO! I texted the proof back home.

I try not to get too terribly excited when my husband’s driving, but I was shrieking in my own head – I’d never been in a place this cold before, “I” was breaking records here! He (the rational one who considers our safety) thought of turning around and heading back. What if we stopped the car and it wouldn’t start again? Then where would we be? Me (the fool, who thrills to adventure) thought this was really cool! Happily, the fool prevailed – we drove on.

In another hour or so, we arrived. The brilliant sun shone. Long icicles dripped crystal drops. Blue-black ravens made their cracking sounds high in the branches above us.

Bundled tight, we ran for the edge to see to the bottom. It was dizzying, glorious!

We snapped our dozens of photos including one of our own long shadows holding hands. Then we headed for the warmth of the lodge, with its rockers on the porch, its grand-scale stone fireplace, and the soup we remembered from the last time we were here.

Last time, I’d even begged for the recipe for that soup. And they gave it to me!

We kept flipping the menu over, front to back, and back to front again, sure we’d missed the soup somehow. It wasn’t there.

We asked our server and were told that another restaurant in the canyon serves it regularly and that it only makes its way up to the big lodge on occasion. This was not to be such an occasion. There was no soup for us that day.

Did it dim our enthusiasm? Not one bit.

~ ~ ~

But with corn chowder still on my mind when we returned home, I had to make a pot. This pot though varies hugely from the one we’d eaten at the canyon. That one used a half gallon of cream. I kid you not. A half gallon! Granted it fed quite a few people, but there was just no way I could bring myself to do it.

I’m pointing no fingers, but I’ve noticed we’re all eating quite well this time of year. Sneaking cookies and egg nog, seconds on gravy and mashed potatoes. But here’s an offering that’s very low fat, creamy with no cream, sweet with no sugar, colorful with no candied sprinkles. What’s more, it’s inexpensive and easy to prepare.  Here’s how:


Smoky Corn & Sweet Potato Chowder

(about 6 good servings)

1 medium-large yellow onion, chopped  (2 cups)

4 cloves garlic, minced

one 3- to 3½-inch jalapeno pepper, finely diced

1 Tablespoon olive oil

1½ teaspoon salt (plus more to taste)

1 Tablespoon cumin seed, dry roasted & then ground (or 4 teaspoons ground cumin)

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

¾ teaspoon liquid smoke

6 cups chicken, turkey or vegetable stock

2 medium-large sweet potatoes, in ½-inch cubes

6 cups frozen corn (3- 10 oz.bags)

1 large red bell pepper, medium-diced



  • corn tortillas – sliced in ¼-inch slices, fried until crispy in small amount of olive oil
  • finely diced red onion
  • finely diced red pepper
  • small bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped


Roast the cumin seed in a dry skillet, medium-low heat until its begun to brown and its aroma is rising. Grind using a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder. (Alternately use ground cumin. But the flavor of toasted cumin is wonderful and worth the extra step.)

In a large skillet, over medium-low heat, heat the olive oil to shimmering. Add the chopped onion, minced garlic, and diced jalapeno pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally until onion has softened. (About 10 minutes.) Add the salt, cumin and cayenne. Cook for about 30 to 45 seconds, stirring continually. Add stock of your choice and liquid smoke.

Add the sweet potato. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for about 15 minutes.

Add the corn and red pepper. Return pot to a simmer. Continue cooking for 5 minutes.

Remove 5 or 6 cups of the soup (roughly half) and place in a blender. Allow to cool slightly. With a folded towel over the lid, purée, then add back into the soup. Return pot to simmer and cook another 5 minutes. Taste and correct seasonings. You may want a touch more smoke, or more salt, or extra cayenne heat.

Ladle into bowls and garnish liberally.

(My personal preference is to allow this soup to sit, off the heat for an hour or more and then reheat when it’s time to serve. The flavors get even better over time, as is the case with most soups. But if you’re not able to do this, proceed & enjoy!)


22 Comments Post a comment
  1. OMG all of my favorite ingredients. I’m going to make this over the weekend and report back! 🙂

    December 12, 2011
    • And I love Doodles – we have one ourselves! Do report back on the chowder. Would love to hear.

      December 13, 2011
  2. Mama, we just had a version of this soup last night after returning from the Christmas tree hunt! Yours looks and sounds amazing. I love the rustic homeyness you were able to capture in your photographs of the soup. And that photo of the rocker and its shadow — lovely. If you ever decide to head in another direction, wildlife/travel writing would also be a great fit for you. You make me feel like I’m there!

    December 12, 2011
  3. Love chowders! How great that it is with sweet potato!

    December 13, 2011
    • Pretty darn great. 😉

      December 13, 2011
  4. What a well-written post, sounds like quite the adventure. Beautiful photos and I love this recipe.

    December 13, 2011
    • Ah, thanks for the nice words, Rufus. Was quite an adventure – could have stood a little more suspense – will-we-get through-this-alive? sort of thing – but I guess we’re saving THAT adventure for another day. 🙂

      December 13, 2011
  5. I adore chowder but have never eaten one with sweet potato – it sounds amazing and perfect for the cold! Shame you couldn´t get the one you´d been hoping for at the lodge – but the views you saw musy have made up for it. Have been to the Grand Canyon twice, but never in winter – lovely to see it in a different light.

    December 13, 2011
    • I had my heart so set on seeing the Grand Canyon dusty white with snow. It didn’t disappoint in any way! Hope you’ll get the chance one day, but it’s quite a ways from your lovely olive grove in Andalucia! (You lucky chica!)

      December 13, 2011
  6. Ali #

    This sounds Soooo delicious! And your photos!!! So stunning. Now I’ve got two things to add to my list of MUST DO’s: Mama’s corn chowder and Grand Canyon!

    December 13, 2011
  7. Wow the photos in this post are gorgeous and that soup looks perfect for winter!

    December 13, 2011
  8. I’m glad you made it out alive! ONLY because I savored a bowlful of this scrumptious soup tonight! 🙂
    And I must say the lodge at the Grand Canyon is remiss. The chowder should be a regular menu item. It’s the perfect simple, hearty feast after coming in from the cold. THANK YOU, SPREE!!
    I love how this remarkable icy outdoor adventure, with its exceptional writing and breathtaking visual depiction, is interwoven so seamlessly with down-home smoky chowder.

    December 13, 2011
  9. OMG! I had that same chowder at the big lodge 10 years ago! It was so incredibly delicious I still remember it to this day. I left without the recipe and could’ve kicked myself. And here it is. Wow! And a lower calorie and healthy version to boot. Love it! Thank you for sharing. What a wonderful little gift. Happy Holidays!!

    December 14, 2011
    • Oh then you KNOW the soup I speak of ! Amazing, yes! For sure though, a much healthier version, this! Happy Holidays to you too!

      December 15, 2011
  10. So happy to have found your blog. I love your writing, photos and of course the recipes.

    December 15, 2011
    • Oh, thanks so much Karen! I’m happy you came!

      December 15, 2011
  11. Looks very yummy, must try but I think liquid smoke must be a very American thing, may have to imagine that bit! 😉

    December 17, 2011
  12. Oh too bad! Not only do we have liquid smoke, we have it in hickory, mesquite…..etc. it adds a touch of “fire” but no heat. Imagine that! 🙂 i’m not sure I remember if you eat meat or not, but if you did the addition of a ham hock or smokey bacon would do something similar.

    December 17, 2011
  13. deb #

    Reminisced reading your story. I took my Mom & Dad there in 2009 so my Dad could see the Grand Canyon one more time, and we ate in the Lodge. It was mid-March and it snowed, but the temps were warmer than yours in December! Dad rode a mule to the bottom of the Canyon in his younger days while working at the Arizona Inn in Tucson. I would love to do the same sometime 🙂 The soup looks and sounds scrumptious.

    December 19, 2011

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