Sex is good, but not as good as fresh sweet corn.
How I wish I’d been the one to express that sentiment, but it was Garrison Keillor who initially uttered it. Yet as true as this ism may seem—or rather, considering I’m a newlywed, as true as it may seem for some of you—there are times when it’s tempting to step out on sweet corn.
Each summer there comes a moment when, regrettably, late-season corn loses a little of its luster. At least for me. It has for as long as I can remember. The corn of my childhood was ample, grown in fields that were a mere 20-second sprint from our kitchen. Evenings at dusk my brother and I would sit on the back steps and lazily shuck and shuck and shuck as the cicadas droned their mesmerizing drone. We’d take the corn inside to the waiting pot of boiling water. Then we’d do what most folks do. Which is to say, we ate it straight off the cob. Every single night. A simple ritual that invoked nothing more than butter and salt yet satisfied more than just the palate. It was perfect.
Until sometime in September. That’s when my sweet corn ennui set in.
Still does. After years of pondering this puzzling behavior, I’ve concluded that it has nothing to do with being lulled into complacency by the previous weeks of abundance or the fact that anything else coming into the local greenmarket has usurped any of my affection. (What, like kabocha squash?) Late-season corn simply has a propensity to be somewhat…starchy. There. I said it. One day it will be milky and wildly sweet, the next it will be crushingly disappointing. Blame it on the vagaries of the earth’s biorhythms.
Still, I succumb to its lure, lugging home armfuls this time of year, hoping disappointment isn’t inevitable. As a result, I’ve managed to develop some coping mechanisms along the way. There are no rules with corn that’s more starchy than sweet. Just a few things I’ve come to respect. Namely that tough, unyielding kernels retain, deep inside, an innate corniness. And unlike early corn that just flings its essence at us, with late corn it’s up to us to tease it out.
As in corn off the cob. Lopped off with a sharp knife, even ho-hum kernels take on new potential. (Cue the theme song to The Love Boat, thank you.) But I’m not talking about cooking the corn on the cob and then slicing it off. This is a nifty, if not exactly innovative, trick—but it has no business here. It’s best reserved for height-of-the-season corn that’s still insanely sweet and requires only the slightest, if any, embellishment. What I mean is corn taken off the cob prior to cooking and them lent some oomph. When quickly roasted, grilled, or sautéed, late-season sweet corn can be revelatory. The sugars caramelize, the exterior begins to crisp, the kernels even begin audibly to pop. It’s like the soft-porn equivalent of corn nuts.
What comes out of the oven or the skillet is surprisingly versatile. See for yourself. Mostly I just sort of ad hoc what comes next. An extra glug of olive oil is always nice, all the more so with sprigs of cilantro or opal basil. I could blather on about the embellishments I tend to turn to, whether out of practice or whimsy, but being just a bit voyeuristic, I’d rather hear how you fancy your late-season corn off the cob, given your druthers. Care to share?
Off the cob and onto the baking sheet
Carefully slice the kernels from the cob and strew them on a baking sheet. Drizzle with a scant amount of olive oil, toss well, and rattle the corn kernels into an even layer. Place the baking sheet in a hot, hot, hot oven (anywhere from 400 degrees on upwards), shaking the sheet occasionally, and cook until the corn is sizzling just a little. You decide whether to yank the sheet from the heat when the corn is just slightly tinged with brown or to wait until it pops and chars a bit. This takes 5 to 10 minutes or so. Watch it carefully. Drizzle the corn with additional olive oil. Finish with a shake of salt and pepper.
Off the cob and into the skillet
Slice the kernels from the cob and into a skillet, preferably cast-iron. Toss in some kernels and not a lot of butter or olive oil over mediumish heat and let it cook a little, stirring only if you must. It’s up to you whether you pull the skillet from the heat when the corn is just slightly burnished at the edges or you wait until it actually audibly pops and chars slightly, typically 8 minutes or so. Embellish with salt and pepper, if you please.
Photo © 2007 Eric Crowley. All rights reserved.