by Anthony Enright
If you spend any time at farmer’s markets or roadside vegetable stalls, you will be well aware that some people go completely, unaccountably nuts for sweet corn. Maybe it’s just the summer heat going to their heads, but when I see that one lady who’s inevitably filling the back of her Subaru with multiple bushels I’m both impressed and a little bit frightened at the level of commitment such a purchase represents. I’m a big fan of sweet corn, but I tend to seize the moment and enjoy it while it’s fresh and in season rather than trying to can or freeze a bunch for later use (this may also be because I’m kinda lazy). However, there’s only so much corn on the cob I can eat before I start to crave a bit more complexity in my corn preparations.
First, a bit of background about sweet corn. You’re probably well aware that we have the native inhabitants of North America to thank for the very concept of corn. Its existence is the result of thousands of years of human influenced genetic tinkering to produce more and more kernels per ear until the field corn we’re familiar with today was developed. Needless to say, corn became a staple of the diets of Native American tribes from the Southwest through the Northeast. Sweet corn, on the other hand, is a naturally occurring mutation of field corn, since it has a very high natural sugar content, it’s typically eaten young and fresh rather than dried and ground. Again, we have the Native Americans to thank for sweet corn as since it’s a recessive genetic mutation, it requires isolation from standard field corn to be effectively cultivated. Nevertheless, it was widely grown prior to European colonization and purportedly first introduced to European settlers by the Iroquois.
So what’s your favorite way to eat sweet corn? Grilling seems to be especially effective as the smoky edge is a perfect foil for the sweet kernels. If you’ve never had the wonderful version of grilled corn on the cob common in Mexico, you should try it immediately (recipe below).
Mexican-style corn on the cob (aka elote):
6 ears fresh sweet corn in the husk
3 tbsp. butter, melted
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup queso añejo (aged cows’-milk cheese), finely crumbled
1 tbsp. powdered chile
1. Put unpeeled corn in a large, deep bowl, cover with cold water, and weight with a plate to submerge. Soak corn for 30 minutes, then drain. Meanwhile, preheat a grill and adjust grill rack to 5” above heat.
2. Grill unpeeled corn over medium-hot heat, turning frequently, until outer leaves are blackened, 15-20 minutes. Remove from heat and when cool enough to handle, peel off husks and remove silk.
3. Brush peeled corn with butter, return to grill, and cook, turning frequently, until browned all over, about 10 minutes. Spread each ear with some mayonnaise, roll in cheese, and sprinkle with powdered chile.
When you tire of eating corn right off the cob, try using corn in one of the more unique recipes below to see this summer staple in a whole new light.
Fresh corn “grits” and shrimp:
5 large ears of corn, shucked and coarsely grated on a box grater (2 cups pulp and juice)
1/4 cup milk, plus more for stirring
Freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup unsweetened roasted pecan butter (see Note)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 ounces thinly sliced country ham or prosciutto, cut into strips
1/2 large sweet onion, thinly sliced
6 ounces sugar snap peas, trimmed
1 cup fresh corn kernels (from 2 ears)
Freshly ground pepper
1 pound shelled and de-veined large shrimp
1 cup lager
Grits: In a saucepan, simmer the grated corn and juices with the 1/4 cup of milk over moderate heat, stirring, until thick, 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and fold in the pecan butter; keep warm.
Shrimp: In a large, deep skillet, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter. Add the ham and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the onion, snap peas and corn, season with salt and pepper and cook until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring, until they just begin to curl, about 3 minutes. Add the lager and bring to a boil. Simmer, stirring frequently, until the shrimp are cooked through and the liquid is slightly reduced, about 3 minutes. Swirl in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.
Whisk a little milk into the grits so it’s the consistency of polenta; heat until warm. Spoon the grits into shallow bowls, top with the shrimp sauté and serve at once.
Note: To make your own pecan butter, process 1 cup toasted pecans in a mini food processor with 1/2 teaspoon canola oil until smooth, about 2 minutes. Season with salt.
Serve With: Lemon wedges.
If you really want to taste the essence of sweet corn, this very simple soup is a great way to do so. Rather than relying on a meat based broth, the soup used a concentrated corn broth to maximize the bright flavor.
Sweet corn soup with basil:
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 sweet onions, chopped
8 ears white corn, kernels removed from cobs (about 8 cups), cobs reserved
10 cups water
3/4 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
Heat 2 tablespoons vegetable oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add half of onions and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add corn cobs and 8 cups water. Simmer until liquid is reduced to 4 cups, about 25 minutes. Cool slightly. Refrigerate overnight. Strain corn broth; discard cobs.
Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in another heavy large pot over medium heat. Add remaining onions and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. Add corn kernels and sauté until almost tender, about 15 minutes. Add strained corn broth and remaining 2 cups water. Simmer uncovered 40 minutes. Cover and simmer until corn is very tender, about 20 minutes longer. Cool slightly.
Working in batches, puree soup in blender until smooth. Return soup to pot. Stir in cream. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cool slightly, then cover and refrigerate. Bring to simmer before continuing.) Divide soup among 6 bowls. Sprinkle with basil add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and serve.
Green bean & sweet corn salad with basil & black olives:
2 pounds green beans, trimmed
3 ears corn, husked
1/2 small red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 small red onion, finely chopped
2/3 cup black olives, halved and pitted
1/3 cup chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, minced
Hot sauce, such as Tabasco, to taste
Salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste
1. Put a large pot of water on to boil. Fill another large pot half full with ice water. Blanch about half the green beans in the boiling water just until tender, 1 to 2 minutes. 2. Remove with a slotted spoon and plunge into the ice water. Transfer to a large bowl. Repeat with the remaining beans.
3. Return the water to a boil. Add corn and blanch until tender but still crisp, about 3 minutes. Drain and immediately plunge into the ice water. Cut the kernels off the cobs.
4. Add the corn to the beans in the bowl. Add bell pepper, onion, olives, basil, oil, vinegar, lemon juice and garlic; toss to mix well. Season with hot sauce, salt and pepper.
Don’t be afraid of the summer bounty of sweet corn, buy a bit more than you need for your weekly corn on the cob fix and find an exciting new way to enjoy this uniquely American treat!