Alan Tangren: How sweet it is
Dear Alan: Please help me shop for corn. Sometimes when I get it home it already seems past its prime.
Alan: I love corn. Corn fresh from my grandmother’s Chicago Park garden is a cherished memory of childhood. It is one of the most welcome gifts of the summer market.
Archeologists have found evidence of corn 7,000 years ago in Central America. Corn as we know it would not exist without human intervention. Ancient farmers selected plants of a native grass for those with plump kernels and large ears, eventually developing the corn we eat today.
About 1,000 years ago corn followed the Native American migration into the forested parts of North America. Historical documents show that corn was on the menu for the first Thanksgiving in 1621.
When I was a growing up, Golden Bantam, still considered a standard of corn quality and flavor, was a leading variety. In those days there was no hybrid “super sweet” corn.
The moment you harvested the ears, the natural sugars of the corn began to turn to starch. You really wanted to have the cooking pot on the stove before you went out to pick the corn.
Over the last 30 years, plant breeders have developed many super sweet varieties. These are many times sweeter than the older varieties and they hold onto their sugar for a long time.
But at what cost to flavor? Even though super sweet varieties stay sweet, they will taste stale if kept too long after harvest. So it still makes sense to look for heirloom varieties and to try to cook corn shortly after harvest.
Tips for selecting & preparing corn
If you don’t have a corn patch in your own backyard, buy locally grown corn directly from the farmer — at a produce stand on the side of the road or at a farmer’s market.
If you can find heirloom varieties, give them a try if you can be sure they are just picked. I like the white Silver Queen, the bi-color Peaches and Cream and the yellow Early Sunglow.
Wherever you buy corn, look closely at the ears. Fresh ears of corn will have fresh-looking cuts at their stems. They will look and feel moist and plump, the husks green and vibrant. The silk peeping out of the top will not be dried out, but will seem a little sticky.
Pull down a few leaves and the kernels will look plump and shiny. The occasional worm may be present, but don’t worry. Trim that part off. It just means the farmer has not gone overboard with pesticides.
Try to use corn as soon as possible. If you must store it, wrap the ears, still in their husks, in a damp towel and refrigerate.
Corn should be shucked at the last minute, and any wispy corn silk pulled away from the ears. Snap off the stalk even with the bottom of the ear.
To enjoy on the cob, simply place in a pot of boiling, unsalted water and cook for two or three minutes. Serve with plenty of salt, pepper and soft butter, either plain or with summer herbs such as basil or cilantro. If you like heat, chop up a green chile to add.
Corn tastes even better from the grill. Pull back the husks but leave them attached at the base. Remove the silk. At this point you can spread on some herb butter. Pull the husks back on as best you can. If the fire is very hot, moisten the husks with water. Grill for 7 or 8 minutes of so, turning frequently.
Shucked corn can be grilled as well, but brush lightly with olive oil before putting on the grill. Turn until a light brown in spots.
When a recipe calls for fresh corn kernels, stand the shucked ear on the big end on a small cutting board placed in a baking sheet. Hold the ear by its tip and slice off the kernels with a sharp knife. Scrape the milk from the cob with the knife.
Corn off the cob can be used in many summer recipes: corn soup, with either whole kernels or puréed, corn soufflé, corn custard, fritters, and in salads. I like to make a variation of succotash, where kernels are cooked in butter with green and yellow wax beans.
Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill St. in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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