Employing cream cheese as a thickener is a surprising use of a familiar taste. People always smile when they figure out that the secret ingredient is something they have eaten and enjoyed their whole lives.
Using the well-known and fondly remembered is a great strategy for creating recipes that people are predisposed to like. It’s a door that opens out onto the pleasure in other less familiar ingredients and combinations.
I was introduced to this use of cream cheese in my early days on the barbecue circuit. I always made it a point to stop in at every barbecue place wherever I went, and that was how I came upon a restaurant named Jack Stack in Kansas City, with superfriendly people and equally super creamed corn.
“I love it,” I said, “creamy and tangy . . . ? Hmm, I know what it is, but I can’t place it.”
“Philly cream cheese,” they answered.
Cream cheese, just like what we had with bagels and lox on Sundays at home on Long Island. I think I may have been the only person in that part of KC who had regularly—or ever—eaten bagels and lox. I was connected to that recipe in a nostalgic way.
As for the combination of chiles and corn: they are both Native American foods, as is barbecued meat.
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup Spanish onion, finely diced
- 1/4 cup red bell pepper, finely diced
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled
- 1 teaspoon thyme leaves
- 1 teaspoon rosemary leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 lemon
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 4 cups corn kernels
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 4 ounces cream cheese
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup mild cheddar cheese, shredded
- 2 tablespoons scallions, thinly sliced
- 3 tablespoons mild red chile pepper, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons chives
- Cut 2 tablespoons of the butter into ½-inch cubes and refrigerate. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat until it crackles. Add the onion, bell peppers, garlic, thyme, rosemary, and cayenne and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is just translucent, 3 to 4 minutes.
- Add the lemon juice, raise the heat to medium, and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 1 minute. Add the chicken stock, bring to a boil, and cook until reduced by half.
- Add the corn kernels, bring to a simmer, and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.
- Meanwhile, bring the cream just to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the cream cheese and whisk gently until melted and smooth.
- Add the cream mixture to the corn and stir gently until thoroughly incorporated, then simmer very gently for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring constantly. Season with salt and white pepper to taste, then swirl in the cubed butter piece by piece until incorporated. Stir in the shredded cheese.
- Remove from the heat and stir in the scallions, chile, and chives. Add more lemon juice and/or salt and pepper to taste and serve.