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Sweet Summer Corn Off the Cob

Fine Cooking Issue 52
Photos except where noted: Sarah Jay
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I ate a lot of corn as a kid. My dad, a dairy farmer in the Central Valley of California, grew corn for our cows, but he also grew a small amount of what my family called “people corn.” Growing up, my experience with “people corn” was always on the cob; I never thought of eating it any other way. Then came my first summer as a cook at Chez Panisse. We cut the kernels off the cob and added them to everything: breads, pastas, puddings, salads, soufflés. I was amazed at corn’s versatility. These days, fresh summer corn shows up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on my table. I fold it into pancakes, toss it in salads, blanch it, grill it, sauté it—I’ve tried it all.

New varieties stay sweeter for longer

I don’t live on a dairy farm anymore, and the corn I eat no longer grows in the field behind my house, so acquiring fresh, sweet corn takes a little more skill and effort. Corn starts converting its sugars into starches immediately after it’s picked, which is why wise cooks used to start a pot of water boiling before heading out to the field to harvest some ears. But thanks to modern hybrid corn varieties like Super Sweet and Sugary Enhanced, which lose their sweetness over days as opposed to minutes, those of us without our own corn patch can still enjoy sweet corn.  

Farmers’ markets and roadside stands are your best bet for finding fresh and delicious corn. There, you can look into the farmer’s eyes and ask, “Exactly when was this corn picked?” Look for plump, green ears that have fresh-looking cuts at their stems and slightly sticky brown silk at the top. If the supermarket is your only option, you’ll have to adopt a more hands-on approach: pull back the husks and inspect the kernels. They should be firm and shiny. (When in doubt, I’ve been known to take a small bite out of an ear or two as well—to the utter humiliation of those with me, but it definitely settles the matter.) When buying corn, there’s only one absolute rule: never buy shucked corn. This trick hides the evidence of old corn: dried cuts on the stems, lackluster husks, and wilting silk. Don’t be fooled.  

Once you’ve bought your prized ears of corn, store them in the refrigerator until you’re ready to cook. Only then should you shuck the corn; the husks keep the corn from drying out. See How to get fresh cork kernels off the cob  for instructions.

The key to cooking corn: be brief

One of my favorite ways to use fresh corn kernels is in a summer vegetable sauté, as in the classic succotash. And it works just as well in more simple sauté combinations, such as corn and squash, corn and red peppers, or corn and chanterelles—all of which benefit from a little diced onion, chopped garlic, and fresh herbs. Fresh corn kernels only need about two minutes to cook. Add them near the end of sautéing with a knob of butter or a drizzle of olive oil, and perhaps a splash of water to provide a little steam.  

If I’m adding corn to dishes with little or no cooking time, such as salads, salsas, or pancakes, I usually blanch the kernels first for about a minute in unsalted boiling water. Blanched corn is wonderful when tossed with slender green beans. Like so many simple corn dishes, it’s a delicious companion to just about anything.

Corn on the cob

Despite the many new ways I now cook with corn, my first love is still corn on the cob. At home, my mom serves it as a separate course, almost like dessert. Her method for cooking several (at least ten) ears of corn is imprecise but always perfect: Bring a pot of water to a boil as you’re cooking dinner. Just as you’re sitting down to eat, drop the corn in the water and turn off the heat. Once you’ve finished the main course, clear the table and pull the hot corn out of the pot and onto a platter. Then return to the table for the “corn course.” (Try it. Corn on the cob is even better when there’s nothing else on your plate to distract you.) This works because the temperature of the water drops significantly when so many ears are added at once, so the corn doesn’t overcook.

If you’re only cooking a few ears, use the traditional method: cook the corn in rapidly boiling water for no more than two minutes. With either method, the water should be unsalted, as salted water tends to make the kernels tough. As for seasonings, sweet butter and salt are still my favorite, but for a little something different, I make an herb-butter or a simple spiced sa;y/ Here’s how:

Herb butter
Chop up 1 or 2 Tbs. chives, chervil, basil, cilantro, or thyme. Mash them into half a stick of room-temperature unsalted butter along with a pinch of salt.

Spiced salt
Mix 1 tablespoon fine sea salt with 1/8 tsp. cayenne (and 1/8 tsp. ground cumin seeds, if you like). Serve the corn with the salt and lime wedges.

Stott Phillips


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