Ah, Corn

Quintessential Food of Summer

Published Summer, 2006
Edible Portland

“What's in season?” you ask. What's not?! According to my calendar, we’re closing in on the lazy, hazy days of summer, and yet we continue to be overwhelmed by fresh, ripe, local choices every time we’re in the produce aisle. The riot of color and flavor in our gardens and markets suggests that summer might be endless after all.

It’s tough to pick a favorite from so many—eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, melons, zucchini, raspberries, figs, nectarines, peaches, plums—but I’m going to do it… cast my vote and make an impassioned pitch for corn. Sweet corn.

I know, I know. We’ve all read Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, or know someone who has. As a result, corn’s become the new WMD for conspicuous U.S. consumers. Ardent Pollan supporters can recite the litany of unsettling facts and figures he foists on his readers: Corn is the keystone of our industrial food system, a grain second only to wheat in acres planted and sustenance given worldwide. Our country is blanketed by 80 million acres of corn monoculture, a single crop that’s remade our landscape at the expense of animals, people and agricultural diversity.

Ninety-nine percent of what most Americans eat, especially if it is industrial food (rather than food produced locally or organically), can be traced back to corn; each of us consumes one ton per year. Oddly enough, of those 10 billion bushels of corn harvested each year, we eat less than one bushel per person as corn—on the cob, as flakes in a cereal bowl or baked into corn muffins, chips and tortillas.

Of course, I’m talking about cheap, over-produced, over-subsidized industrial corn: pop (the original corn, cultivated over 7,000 years ago), dent (used for processed corn products), flint (a rare, hearty strain grown for specialty cornmeal) and flour (its kernels are easily ground when dry).

The fifth type, sweet corn, is the only one that tastes of the rays of summer sun that nourish it. It is the quintessential food of barbecues and picnics, clambakes, crawfish boils, and summertime family reunions. Sweet corn made me hate the braces I wore until eighth grade even more, since few things are as satisfying as gnawing the nibs of a deforested cob in search of remaining milky sweet kernels.

Corn is curious in that it converts its sugars to starch as it ripens, rather than the other way around. And since its sugar is what makes corn precious (it’s called sweet corn, after all) it takes a deft and well-orchestrated human effort to trump vegetable biology by prolonging the sweet moment. The corn we patiently await, only “knee high by the Fourth of July,’’ falls into one of three categories determined by genetic makeup: sugary, supersweet and sugary enhanced.

Sugary describes old-fashioned sweet corn varieties like Golden Bantam, Country Gentleman and Silver Queen. The traditionalists who favor them argue that these old garden stalwarts are chewier, more flavorful…cornier, if you will. But a lower sugar content that plummets rapidly once the corn is picked means the window of freshness for sugary corn is measured in minutes rather than hours or days. For this reason, you won’t find it available commercially, but it’s not in danger of slipping quietly into obscurity either. It’s easy to track down the seeds and plant some in your backyard.

Supersweet corn converts its sugar to starch more slowly. Devotees of sugary corn say that breeders who tinkered with its genetics went too far; the sugar in an ear of supersweet can overwhelm its depth of flavor, its essential corn-ness. With up to three times the sugar, this hybrid boasts the longest shelf life and is the one you’re likely to see in the supermarket. Look for award-winning varieties like How Sweet It Is and Honey ‘N Pearl, or Showcase, a large-eared variety with outstanding eating quality. Supersweet corn grows less successfully for home gardeners because it’s particularly temperature-sensitive.

The second hybrid, sugary enhanced, has a sucrose content that falls somewhere between the other two. This cultivar offers old-fashioned corn flavor and sweet, tender kernels that retain those qualities three to four days after the corn is picked. Sugary enhanced corn is widely available, turning up regularly at local and farmers’ markets. It’s also an excellent choice for a backyard garden. Try Immaculata (unusually sweet, with gorgeous dark green husks), Lancelot (big-eared and bi-colored) and Sugar Buns (smallish ears, deep kernels and superior flavor).

Always buy corn in its husk. Husking removes the long stem-end, the place where the ear has been ripped from the stalk. As the sugars in an ear of corn turn starchy, its tip gets brown and dry at roughly the same rate. When it is fresh from the field, the stem-end will be milky white and beaded with moisture, promising truly sweet corn. The husks should be damp, and rich green in color. Listen for squeaking as you strip them away from the ear, a hallmark of just-picked freshness.

Does good corn etiquette permit one to peel back the husk tips, revealing tender young kernels? Presumably the only good reasons for doing so are to confirm that they are pristine and, more importantly, free of earworms. Good reasons to politely refrain from peeking include protecting the corn from unnecessary exposure, which causes it to dry out, and avoiding making the farmer or produce manager cranky.

The same determination can be made by running your hands over an ear of corn, feeling for kernels that are firm, plump and tight on the cob. And if you happen to find one, simply flick off the worm and trim away the tip on which he’s feasted. Please note: You will never find more than one earworm on an ear of corn. These caterpillars are cannibalistic and, in true Darwinian fashion, the largest, having devoured the rest, remains as the sole survivor.

Though it’s less likely than encountering an earworm, don’t be alarmed if you come across a patch of corn fungus or smut. Enthusiasts compare the smoky-sweet flavor of this delicacy to truffles. Commonly known as “maize mushroom” or huitlacoche (sometimes spelled cuitlacoche), the fungus is highly prized in Mexican cooking where it is used to flavor tamales, quesadillas and other regional specialties. The corn kernels swell to 10 times their normal size when the fungus attacks, and turn an unappealing murky gray, verging on black. The immature smut should be harvested when it begins to expand, before it dries out and turns black. If you’re feeling adventurous, remove the smut from the corn kernels with a sharp knife. Coarsely chop it, then saute in butter for 15 minutes.

The rituals of corn are many and run deep. There isn’t a formula that I’m aware of to calculate the minutes of sweetness remaining in a freshly plucked ear of corn. But I do know that the faster the ear gets from the field to the table, the sweeter the reward. If you’re lucky enough to have it growing in your backyard, don’t snap the ear from the stalk until the coals are hot, or the water in the pot has come to a vigorous boil. If you’re choosing from the abundant supply at the market, don’t be tempted to buy more than you’ll eat in one sitting.

When it comes to cooking corn, your method of choice might have as much to do with upbringing, geographically speaking, as predilection. Midwesterners’ close association with it makes them corn purists of a kind; they prefer the simplicity of boiled or steamed corn slathered with butter and sprinkled liberally with salt, maybe pepper. Period. Corn in this part of the country isn’t an ingredient so much as a course unto itself.

For the best-tasting boiled corn, bring a large pot of water to a lively boil. Don’t add salt; it toughens the corn. Add the shucked corn in batches, so that the water continues to boil. Fresh young corn takes about 30 seconds, just long enough for it to heat through. More mature corn needs up to three minutes. If you boil it husk-on, double the cooking time. The silk will pull away when you shuck it.

Northeasterners are partial to coal-roasted corn, having perfected this preparation over decades of beachside clambakes on the shores of the Atlantic. In the absence of clams and coals, however, oven-roasted corn is a stellar substitute and the ideal solution for feeding a crowd. Peel the husks back, leaving them attached at the base of the ear. Remove the silk, smear the kernels with softened butter (try adding fresh herbs, chilies or lime zest) and rewrap with the husk. Pile the corn in a large pan and loosely cover it with foil. Roast in a 450-degree oven for 8-10 minutes.

Grilling is a national pastime, but it seems to be especially popular in the West, probably because the barbecue season is longer. Corn grilled in its husk has a greener flavor than grilled, shucked corn, which tastes wonderfully smoky. If you have time, soak the corn in cold water for several hours before you plan to eat it; it will steam as it cooks on the grill. Wait until you have a perfect bed of coals, glowing and covered in ash, before throwing it on the grill, and turn each ear several times while cooking. Shucked corn takes 3-4 minutes, twice as long if you leave it in the husk.

Finally we come to the eating. Huck Finn said, “There ain’t nothing in the world so good when it’s cooked right.” I would add that it must also be eaten correctly. Some fall in the typewriter camp—we’ll need another metaphor for post-Smith-Corona generations—left to right, in long straight rows. Others employ the TP technique—my sister and I like to think we came up with this comparison—around and around to the end. I won’t acknowledge those who eat in patches, or cut the corn off of the cob, save the braces- and denture-wearing among us.

Pollan’s corn may be malevolent, wreaking havoc on our landscape and our waistlines, but it’s not the kind I’m having for dinner tonight. I’ll take the sweet corn, please, boiled, salted and enjoyed typewriter-style, the right way. Don’t forget you’ve got a bushel to eat too.

Use corn stock as a base for soups and stews, or to make the best polenta you’ve ever tasted. Don’t forget to add the pulpy milk from scraping.

1. Remove the kernels from 12 ears of corn. If you have one, use a corn slitter, a tool used by Southerners to make creamed corn. (It slices off the tips of the kernels, allowing the juicy pulp to be extracted by scraping with the back of the tool, leaving the tough hulls behind.)
2. Put the cobs in a large pot with 6 peppercorns, a bay leaf, 2 stems each fresh parsley and thyme and 14 cups water. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce to medium and simmer 1 1/2 hours.
3. Strain and refrigerate or freeze for later use.
Makes 4-5 cups.

Recipe for Sweet Corn Waffles