08/14/2013 05:46 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2013

Cooking Off the Cuff: Striped Bass And Corn ... Chowder?

For years, I've used full-fledged dishes as sauces for other dishes: the Hungarian pepper, onion and tomato stew lecsó is great for smothering fish like cod; sauerkraut cooked with aromatics, wine and stock makes a wonderful environment for browned poultry or meat; even leftover Thai-type vegetable curries can be pureed into startlingly good sauces.

And now that we're finally in corn season (and pepper season and potato season - isn't summer grand?), we can make a less-liquid variation on classic corn chowder and use its fresh, rich sweetness as a substantial sauce/accompaniment for fish. Happily, a noble fish with meaty, hefty, flavorful flesh but considerable delicacy is abundant right now too: striped bass.

To make enough "sauce" for four portions, I cut the kernels off three ears of corn and set them aside. The bare cobs I cut into roughly 3/4-inch lengths and simmered them for a quarter of an hour lightly salted water along with a sprig or two of the herb I was planning to use: tarragon, but a mixture of thyme and parsley would have been very good, too.

Meanwhile, I cut two strips of thick-cut bacon crosswise into matchsticks and cooked these in a saucepan over fairly low heat until they had started to brown; I then added a medium onion, diced, and a sprinkling of salt, and cooked it slowly until translucent. While this was happening, I cut a fine dice of green and red peppers, for a total of about 2/3 cup. Like almost everything else, these were from the farmers' market, and their piquancy was unpredictable. Over the years I've learned to taste unknown peppers before adding them to the cookpot, and that day there were some conical green ones and little round red ones that I was assured were sweet; they were actually pretty hot, so I used them with restraint, fleshing out the pepper mixture with a not-hot-at-all green bell pepper.

I also peeled two small (two inches long, perhaps) new-season potatoes and cut them into 3/8-inch dice; when the onions were done, I added these to the pan, seasoned them and poured in a mixture of corn stock and whole milk - not quite to cover: the potatoes would cook in steam even if they weren't submerged. I added a sprig of tarragon, covered the pan and stirred occasionally until the potatoes were just tender. Then I added the diced peppers, which I'd quickly sautéed in butter to bring out their flavor. (I didn't sauté them with the original bacon-onion mixture because they would have overcooked while the potatoes were softening.)

I removed the sprig of tarragon, added freshly chopped tarragon leaves and a scant 1/3 cup heavy cream and checked for seasoning (it needed pepper).

Now, I cooked skin-on portions of striped bass in neutral oil (grape seed oil that day), making sure the skin was crisp and the flesh cooked through but moist. To check the doneness I used the trick of inserting a cake tester into the thickest part of the flesh, leaving it there for five seconds or so then quickly touching it to my lip: when it was warm just verging on hot, the fish was properly cooked. Other fish would be lovely too - and lobster would be terrific.

With more liquid - corn stock, milk and cream - the "sauce" would have been a plausible chowder, and, even with the palpable heat from those hot peppers, it had all the comforting richness of that dish. It was perhaps a little too comforting, so for points of sparkle I topped it with tiny raw tomatoes, halved: spoonsful of diced tomato would have worked well, too, or perhaps a few drops of lemon juice.

This was a great, elegant treat, and not only because it tapped the seasonal market to perfection. We'll try to duplicate it at least once more before one of the ingredients loses its mid-summer dazzle.

Striped Bass And Corn ... Chowder?