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Article

Sweet Corn is a Summer Treasure

Corn on the cob is tasty, but there are many other ways to sneak the crisp kernels into your meals

Fine Cooking Issue 73
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Sweet corn tops my list of vegetables I simply will not buy when it isn’t in season and isn’t locally grown. It’s a long wait from the end of September to the following July, but it’s worth it when I sink my teeth into an earful of plump kernels bursting with sweet, corny flavor.

The sugars in old-fashioned sweet corn varieties quickly turn to starch once the ears are picked, which puts the truth in the old line that you should pick the corn only once the kettle of water is at the boil. But plant breeding has led to sweeter corn varieties as well as corn that retains its sugars for longer after it’s been harvested. The first improvement was the introduction of what the trade calls “sugar-enhanced” varieties. Then along came “supersweet” corn varieties, whose smaller, crisper kernels are very much sweeter and stay so for even longer. In my opinion, supersweet corn delivers an overdose of sweet and not enough corny flavor, although I do like its stay-crisp, non-creamy texture in salsas and relishes. Of course, when you’re buying corn, you often only have one choice of variety and it’s frequently not labeled as anything but fresh corn. If you’re buying at a local stand, the seller will likely be able to fill you in on the variety.

Despite all the genetic improvements, the main tricks to good corn eating are still to buy it as fresh as you can and to cook and eat it promptly. When choosing corn, look for ears with moist, fresh-looking husks. Don’t worry about browning silks, which are the farmer’s cue that the corn is ready to pick. Feel the ears to suss out how plump they are and whether the rows of kernels are fully formed. It’s bad manners to strip the ears to check out the kernels and then not to buy the ear you’ve disturbed. You can, however, gently part the ends of the husks at the ear tip and take a peek at what’s inside. If you like what you see, buy that ear and take the rest on faith.

Back home, don’t shuck the corn until you’re ready to use it. If you’re not going to cook it all that day, stow the ears in the refrigerator, loosely wrapped in a dry plastic bag.

Off the cob, corn goes with nearly everything

At the start of corn season, I want nothing more than plain boiled corn on the cob with butter and salt. After a while, I’m ready to integrate the kernels into other dishes. Corn goes well with most summer vegetables and herbs. Any time a recipe is based on cornmeal, consider adding fresh corn kernels.

  • Toss together a corn salsa with grilled corn (cut off the kernels after grilling), diced tomatoes, red onions, and roasted red peppers. Season with minced jalapeño and garlic, a touch of minced chipotle, and plenty of chopped cilantro. Moisten with olive oil and fresh lime juice.
  • Stir fresh corn kernels into cornbread or corn muffins to punch up the corn flavor.
  • Make a rich, cheesy corn polenta by cooking coarse cornmeal in chicken stock, then stirring in ricotta and grated Parmesan, corn kernels, and fresh thyme.
  • Make a southwestern-style sauté of diced onion, diced summer squash, diced sweet pepper, corn, minced garlic, and minced jalapeño, seasoned with a dash of cumin. Garnish with diced avocado and a squeeze of lime juice, or a scattering of grated smoked mozza¬rella or smoked Gouda. Use leftovers as a filling for tacos or quesadillas.
  • Build a pretty salad of thinly sliced cucumbers, beets, and red onion on a bed of butter lettuce. Scatter corn kernels and crumbled feta over all and dress with a lemony vinaigrette with chopped dill.
  • For an elegant brunch dish, bake a savory tart filled with a mix of raw corn, sautéed diced bell pepper and onion, sautéed sliced mushrooms, and chopped blanched spinach, all bound with beaten eggs and a big spoonful of creamy ricotta or goat cheese.
A savory corn tart makes a tasty brunch dish.

Keep fresh kernels at the ready

Here’s a simple way to preserve the sweetness of fresh corn and to keep corn kernels on hand for tossing into salads, side dishes, sautés, or other weeknight dishes. Cut the kernels off the cobs and blanch them in boiling water for 1 or 2 minutes. Drain, let cool, and store in a covered container in the fridge for up to five days. Or freeze the kernels in a single layer on a baking sheet until hard, and then store in an airtight container in the freezer, where they’ll keep for up to three months.

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