Lend an ear to the childhood memories of a family favorite: sweet corn
Here's a kernel of truth: As a young adult living in Athens, Ga., I once decided to host a “corn-a-thon.” All the corn lovers I knew came, while others showed up to share in the spirit. We boiled up a couple of big pots of sweet corn on the cob, put butter and salt and newspapers out on the picnic table, and then sat around eating away to see if we could ever “get enough.”
Well, we never did get sick of it, and we mowed through quite a few cobs that day. I think we just got full.
My taste for sweet corn goes way back and is one of my earliest food memories.
The setting is my grandparents' farmhouse outside Columbus, Ohio. It's early afternoon and Grandmom is at the stove, which is covered with pots and pans and all four burners are cranking.
My father and Granddad are sitting side by side just outside the back door in two of those old metal “bounce” chairs, husking corn that was on the stalk 10 minutes earlier.
Then we're all crowded around the Formica-and-chrome table at the end of the kitchen. It's July, so the windows are wide open and you can see row upon row of floppy-top corn in the fields. There's a big basket of bread on the table — some of it is deep brown and some slices look like they have ants embedded in them. Granddad likes those.
Along with heaping bowls of food, a large platter of steamy yellow corn comes to the table. It's the corn I remember most.
We can have TWO ears if we want, and we five children think this is pretty great. We also like that we eat it with our hands and it's OK to be messy.
But it's the creamy, salty sweetness of the corn that really reels us in. And I'm hooked for life.
White corn is Queen
The queen still reigns in the South, but mostly in name only.
Southerners' penchant for white sweet corn made the hybrid Silver Queen the name brand, even years after it was supplanted by newer and improved varieties. It's rarely grown anymore, yet people think of “Silver Queen” as the corn they want.
The Olde Time Farmers Market on Main Road near Savannah Highway did have some true Silver Queen this spring, says Donna DeWitt, who runs the stand. The corn came out of Immokalee in south Florida. Now she's selling white corn grown in Moncks Corner.
But DeWitt knows better than to sell yellow corn, or even bicolor. The overwhelming majority of her customers just won't buy it, maybe “one out of 30 to 40 people,” she says. “People associate white corn with tender corn, yellow corn with cow corn.”
Things to know
Speak the language: Husking is removing the green leaves, or husk, from the ear of corn. Shucking is cutting the kernels off the cob.
Neat trick: Microwave your corn instead of husking the ears and having to deal with those pesky strands of corn silk, and then bring a pot of water to a boil. Put the unhusked corn in the microwave. Zap it 4 to 5 minutes. Remove, and with a heat- protective glove or holder, strip off the husk. The silk slips off easily in the process. Butter, salt, eat.
A better way: To cut the kernels from the cob safely and with less mess, start with a large, wide bowl. Invert a smaller bowl with a flat bottom inside the larger bowl. Stand the flat end of the ear on the smaller bowl and slice down the sides with a sharp chef's knife. You'll catch the kernels and the milk in the bigger bowl.
Crazy for corn
The title gets right to the point: “I Love Corn.”
Author Lisa Skye is an unabashed cornhead, so to speak, and her just-published cookbook is the testimonial.
“Frankly, I love corn,” says Skye, a south Florida native who lives and works in New York City. “It's yellow, it's happy, it's bright, it goes with everything.”
Another big reason she wrote the book was to honor her father, who died in 2004. A large portion of the proceeds from the book will be donated to the Dougy Center in Portland, Ore., which supports people grieving the loss of a loved one.
Skye came to appreciate the versatility of corn while writing the 50-recipe book, which includes contributions from well-known chefs such as Daniel Boulud and celebrities such as Martha Stewart. Charleston chef Bob Waggoner is among them with a roasted corn, bacon and caramelized sweet onion dish.
“Corn can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Skye says. “The corn ice cream was the biggest surprise, I think. There's chestnut honey and cayenne in it, and brown sugar, and you get such a great sweetness there. It's just an unexpected delicious ice cream.”
Skye tested and retested the recipes in the book, trying to make certain they were workable for home cooks.
“I'm not a trained chef,” she says, “so if I can make it, anyone in the world can make it.”
She says the testing process didn't spoil her appetite.
“People say, 'Do you still love corn?' Yeah, I love corn even more than before.”
Lobster and Corn Bruschetta
Shrimp or crab may be substituted for the lobster in this recipe, created by executive chef-owner Dominic Giuliano of Choza Taqueria in New York City.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus additional for drizzling
2 medium-size ears fresh corn, kernels removed (1½ cups)
1 medium-size red pepper, seeded and diced
2 shallots, minced
1 tablespoon curry powder
1/3 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons minced cilantro, plus additional leaves for garnish
2 tablespoons minced scallions, white and green parts (about 4 scallions)
1 (1½-pound) lobster, cooked, cleaned and diced into ¼-inch pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 French baguette, cut into 1/2-inch slices
½ avocado, pitted and sliced very thinly
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the corn, red pepper and shallots. Cook until tender and the shallots begin to appear translucent, 3 to 4 minutes.
Whisk together the curry powder and heavy cream in a small bowl, and then add to the corn mixture. Continue to cook until the consistency of the cream has thickened, about 1 minute. Add the cilantro, scallions and lobster. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Reduce the heat to low. Allow the mixture to cook for 10 minutes so the flavors have time to come together and the mixture thickens.
Place the slices of baguette on a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake in the oven until slightly toasted, 5 to 7 minutes.
To serve, place a spoonful of lobster mixture over each of the toasted baguettes. Garnish with a small slice of avocado and a cilantro leaf.
From “I Love Corn” by Lisa Skye (Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, $19.99)
Fresh Corn Ice Cream
Serves 4 to 6
“I was born in North Carolina, and moved all around the South while growing up. The rituals of sharing a platter of corn on the cob and making ice cream from fresh summer fruit always felt like going back home for summer break, no matter how far from the grandparents we were. This ice cream blends two homey memories into one summery adventure, and, of course, it's best when corn is in season. Don't throw out the cobs after cutting the corn from them: They are just more corn goodness when steeped in the custard! You could substitute frozen corn and/or skip the cobs, but I don't recommend canned corn for this recipe. The natural starch in the corn acts as a thickener when it is heated, which makes the texture so silky and rich!” — Founding Pastry Chef Allen Stafford, Casellula in New York
2 cups half-and-half
1 cup fresh corn kernels, cut from the cobs, including any juices (about 1 large ear)
2 corncobs, broken or cut into 2-inch pieces
5 large egg yolks
½ cup turbinado sugar
2 tablespoons chestnut honey (see cook's notes)
Pinch of kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne (see cook's notes)
Chopped chocolate, or chopped tomatoes, or fresh blueberries, for serving
Cook's notes: I use chestnut honey to stabilize the sugar. You can use any honey, or even corn syrup, but I like the complex flavors of chestnut honey. It also enriches the color a bit.
Don't skip the cayenne! I add cayenne to many dishes, because the natural stimulants in it raise and sensitize your taste buds, making you literally taste more. I like to boost flavor when it's as subtle as corn. Plus, very cold foods such as ice cream numb your taste buds a bit.
In very small amounts like this you may not even taste cayenne; it has more heat than flavor.
In a medium-size saucepan over high heat, bring the half-and-half, corn kernels and cob pieces to a boil. When the mixture starts to boil, remove from the heat immediately, and let infuse for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until the yolks are pale yellow. Whisk in the honey, salt and cayenne.
Remove the cobs from the corn mixture and discard them. With an immersion blender, or in a food processor, puree the corn mixture.
Bring a large pot filled halfway with water to a simmer over low heat. Set the large bowl with the egg yolk mixture over the simmering water and slowly drizzle the corn mixture into the yolk mixture, stirring constantly, to make corn custard. Continue to stir the custard until it coats the back of a spoon, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and remove the bowl from the pot.
Press plastic wrap onto the surface of the custard to avoid forming a skin. Chill in the refrigerator overnight, or for at least 4 hours. Warm custard will not freeze properly.
Strain the custard through a fine-mesh sieve to remove the corn and any egg solids. Freeze in an ice-cream maker according to the manufacturer's directions.
For a soft-serve consistency, eat immediately. Transfer to a freezer-safe container and freeze overnight for firmer ice cream.
From “I Love Corn” by Lisa Skye (Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, $19.99)