Take advantage of sweet corn's bounty
If you believe Rodgers and Hammerstein, apparently the great state of Oklahoma once teemed with thundering herds of elephants.
Starting each spring, from the dusty plains of Grainola in the north to the equally dusty plains of Gene Autry in the south — seems they’re fairly rotten with dusty plains down there — these tusked and terrifying beasts wrought naught but death and destruction across the land until late summer, when the corn crops grew high enough to block their sight lines. Thus blinded — the corn being as high as an elephant’s eye — they’d abandon their stampede to hibernate through the unrelenting Oklahomaic winters.
Once again, corn saves the day. All hail, mighty, mighty corn.
Why you need to learn this
Your corn crib is busting at the seams, filled to the rafters, stuffed to the gills. What to make with all that corn? Besides your lip-smacking, homemade high fructose corn syrup, that is.
The steps you take
First off, let’s be clear: It’s late summer. Fresh sweet corn is as common as Cincinnati street pigs, so, for now, can we eschew the canned and frozen numbers?
Now, for those of us of solid Midwestern stock (Not to brag, but a recent DNA test traces my lineage back 37,000 years to the backseat of a Rambler parked outside a tavern in Carbondale, Illinois), you’ll be possessed of an almost psychotic love for corn on the cob. Boiled, roasted or grilled, dripping with melted butter, seasoned with salt and speckled with pepper, what could possibly be better?
On the other hand, as the lion I met outside the vegan carryout joint told me, shrugging his shoulders, “Hey, sometimes you just get tired of antelope.” “Yeah,” I laughed, “but wait; lions have shoulders?”
You too, then, might want to try something nonantelope-ish on your corn on the cob. Consider:
1. Compound butter. Soften some butter, then mix in something flavorful: minced fresh herbs, garlic, anchovies, olives — you get the picture.
2. Olive oil. Mix it with other fresh ingredients (as above), or stir in a bit of something delicious like pesto or tapenade or cheese spread.
3. Mayonnaise. Spread it, then dust it with cheese. Mexican versions often use cotija, but if you use Parmesan or Romano, that surely will not rend the sky asunder. Try some cayenne or chile powder, too, or chopped cilantro and a squeeze of lime.
4. Cultured dairy. Use yogurt or sour cream like the mayo or just fold yummy things into it. Think thematically, like crumbled feta, oregano and lemon juice like you’re Zorba the Greek. Or, cue up some A.R. Rahman on the Spotify and mix in some cumin, garam masala and a bit of cayenne along with a splash of lime.
And salt. Don’t forget the salt.
You get the picture. If your corn is salted properly, the other ingredients will adhere to the mildly flavored white goo, turning your corn into a creamy, savory, well-seasoned ticket to paradise.
Still, perhaps you, being the cultured type, prefer not to eat with your hands. In that case, the first thing you’ll want to do is remove the kernels from the cob. It’s easy and messy:
1. Use your nonknife hand to stand a shucked ear on your cutting board or in a large bowl, like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown. Starting halfway up, cut down along the cob with a chef’s knife, releasing the kernels onto the cutting board. After each cut, rotate the cob toward you and repeat until you’ve gone all the way around. Flip the corn over and repeat.
2. If you want to be really cool, do this: Use the back of the knife to scrape down the newly naked cob. This squeezes out any remaining pulp and liquid — some wags call this the “corn milk.” Add it to whatever you’re making with the corn.
Now, let’s use that corn. Here are three good, general suggestions, all with the added bonus of being good band names:
Raw. Super sweet corn — it’s everywhere this time of year — you don’t even need to cook. Use it raw in salads or salsas or sprinkle it along with crumbled bacon on vanilla ice cream.
Soup and Other Liquids. No, I’m not talking about corn squeezin’s, Li’l Abner. (For you youngsters out there, “corn-squeezin’s” means liquor, and Li’l Abner was a popular comic strip created by Al Capp in 1934, based on offensive stereotypes of that group of Americans known insultingly as “hillbillies.”)
First off, there’s corn stock. It’s like meat stock, without the gore. After removing the kernels, cover the cobs in water and simmer them for an hour-ish to extract the flavor. For deeper flavor, add aromatics like onion, carrot and celery, and herbs like parsley, thyme and bay leaf. Use this as a base for soups or sauces, or just season it with salt and drink it warm like the psychopath you are.
Or, make corn chowder: Crisp some bacon lardons and set them aside, then sweat diced aromatics in the bacon fat. Add your corn and corn stock (or water or chicken stock) to cover. Simmer until the corn is tender, then pulse it in a blender to make it smooth-ish and thick-ish. Season it with salt, finish it with cream and garnish with the reserved bacon. Yum.
The Hot Pan Progression. This concept leads to a splortillion variations. In ascending order of complexity:
1. Fatless char: Get your skillet hot — cast iron works especially well for this — then toss in fresh corn kernels with no fat. Stir while it cooks for about 5 minutes, until the corn is tender and has attractive little black, burned spots on the outside. Toss it with butter or not, or use it in salads or salsas or cornbread or just shove a handful into your pocket for later.
2. Sauteed: Get a saute pan hot, then add some fat of your choice. If it’s oil, use just enough to coat the bottom of the pan. With butter, I add more because it coats the kernels with that sweet, buttery flavor. With bacon fat, I split the difference. Regardless, saute the corn until it’s cooked through, anywhere from 2 to 6 minutes, depending on how hot your flame is, what kind of pan you’re using and how much corn there is.
3. Added aromatics. Saute diced onion and/or bell pepper and/or garlic for a couple minutes before adding the corn. Continue cooking, stirring until corn is cooked through. Season and serve.
4. Creamed corn and its cousins. My mother used to open cans of “creamed corn” and bake it in a casserole topped with slices of Velveeta until it was golden brown and bubbly. My father loved it. I ranked it just above canned, cubed beets in heavy syrup, and just below stabbing myself in the eye with a fork. I have since learned to love creamed corn, and here are a couple of the many ways to make it:
Proceed as in numbers 2 or 3 above, sauteing your corn with or without aromatics. For something like maque choux (see accompanying recipe), just add heavy cream (the late, great New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme used sweetened, condensed milk) and reduce it until it thickens.
Or you could sprinkle a couple tablespoons of flour over the whole lot, then stir it in until it looks like a big, gloppy nightmare, then add milk or half-and-half or cream, depending on your feelings about arteriosclerosis.
Personally, I prefer chicken stock, then finish it with a bit of cream. It’s still rich, but not nearly as heavy.
MAQUE CHOUX WITH OR WITHOUT BACON
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 25 minutes
Makes: 6 servings
This popular side dish from the cuisine of Louisiana has as many interpretations as there are cooks. Bacon adds great flavor and texture, but it’s just as nice when it’s completely vegetarian. Adjust the amount of spices and cream to your liking. You can also turn it into a main dish to serve over rice with additional proteins like shrimp or andouille sausage.
- 1/2 pound bacon, cut into lardons (1/4-inch wide pieces) or 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 1 bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 6 to 8 ears fresh corn, shucked, kernels cut off
- 1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
- Salt as needed
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
1. If using bacon, crisp it in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Remove bacon and pour out all but a couple tablespoons of bacon fat. (Note: Keep remaining bacon fat in a covered jar in the refrigerator for later use.)
2. Increase heat to medium high; saute onion and bell pepper in bacon fat (or oil, if you’re not using bacon) until soft and starting to color, about 5 minutes.
3. Add corn kernels, garlic and reserved, crisped bacon; saute until cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes.
4. Season with salt and the spices, then add cream and simmer to reduce and thicken, about 10 minutes. Serve immediately.
Nutrition information per serving: 212 calories, 14 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 23 mg cholesterol, 22 g carbohydrates, 7 g sugar, 5 g protein, 7 mg sodium, 3 g fiber