27 July 2007
Corn Like the Summer of 1999
We spent two glorious weeks of vacation where the daytime climate hovered around seventy degrees and sunny and our evening appointments of sunset on the rocks called for jeans and heavy sweaters, wrapping shawls around our necks, we toasted the boats in the harbor with a glass of rosé the color of the pink, purple sky. Returning from vacation is always hard, but as we emerged into the 95 degree heat, the oppressive humidity, it seemed more like culture shock. I had forgotten that summer really was underway, “I’m melting, mom, I’m melting,” I cried as I worked to prop up plants in her garden. “Really, my nose is sliding down my face, I’m a Picasso painting.”
In this kind of weather, it’s hard to even work up much of an appetite, much less consider cooking anything. Entering the cool aisle of the grocery, I spied a sign that said local corn, and since sweet white Maryland corn is always good, I grabbed some of the fat heavy ears.
Talking with a friend later that week, my mother said in her Southern-tinged voice, “have you had any of the corn yet, why, it’s as good as the corn of 1999.” We both burst out in full-on belly laughs, but my mom was serious, and I knew just what she meant. The corn of the summer of 1999 is legendary in our family. That is the year we spent part of the summer at our friend’s beach house on the Eastern Shore. We’d go down to the local IGA, a ramshackle shed of a grocery, and get local corn and butter beans out of their wood crates. The corn was divine: fresh, sweet, wonderfully tender. We ate corn and beans for weeks, I don’t even remember anything else on the table. A man might rustle up some testosterone and put some fish on the grill, maybe some sliced tomatoes, but it was all about the corn. Tiny little Anne would eat 6 ears a night. “Can we do the butter thing,” Hollis would ask. This referred to rolling your hot corn over the stick of butter on the table, it’s the perfect way to coat an ear of corn, but also leaves tell-tale grooves in the butter, and so was not to be done in the presence of company. Much of dinner conversation was devoted to whether one ate their corn typewriter style or in the round.
We even endeavored to drive out into the country and find the reputed corn farmer, it was a bit like searching for the Field of Dreams, expecting his rows of tall ears to bear some tell-tale sign of their deliciousness. However, the corn appeared just like all those other fields we’d driven past, and the farmer was reticent to discuss his corn with a bunch of city girls. So we contented ourselves with eating, and that was good enough. Some people talk about vintages of wine and terroir, we talk about the years of sweet white kernels.
The corn this year has been just as wonderfully good. It’s got me thinking about how good Maryland corn is, all these years I’ve been eating adequate corn in other locales, I’ve learned to settle for less. I remembered a British friend who told me that corn was only considered food for livestock, and a Croatian friend who insisted corn had to be boiled for an hour (!) before being tender enough to eat. When you’ve got corn this good, it only needs a few minutes in boiling water and a thin swath of butter. Do not grill your corn in it’s husks, do not even think of using it for some other preparation, tender just-picked corn should be consumed as soon as possible, knawing away, butter and juices running down your chin.
In this spirit, I wasn’t even going to include a recipe today, but then I changed my mind and I’m giving you two. Even with the best corn, after about the tenth night of eating it you might want a little variation, so you can try different flavored butters to smear on your corn. And if you live in an area where corn is sub-par or out of season, I’m including my creamy corn recipe. This is so deliciously creamy, people will swear it’s full of cream, but it’s not. As for me, I’ve got corn on the cob, so I hope you all don’t mind if I do the ‘butter thing’ in your presence, because we’re all friends here.
Corn with Parmesan Black Pepper
I always thought corn on the cob should be graced only with the thinnest smear of butter and salt, until I met this version. Finely grated cheese clings immediately to the hot corn, adding a wonderful salty tang.
corn on the cob, preferably sweet white corn such as Silver Queen, shucked
very finely grated parmesan cheese, use a microplane or the finest part of a box grater
plenty of fresh cracked black pepper
1. Cook the corn in a large pot of boiling water until tender, a few minutes. Toss together the grated cheese and pepper in a bowl. Drain the corn and pat dry with a towel. Sprinkle a little cheese mixture over each ear of hot corn, rotating to coat all sides. Place on a platter and serve immediately.
The original title of this recipe was “creamless creamed corn,” but it’s too delicious to be thought of as lacking anything. If you’re serving it as a side dish at dinner, cook the mixture a few extra minutes so that it’s thicker and not runny. You can also use it as the base of a soup, I particularly like it topped with flakes of smoked trout and chile oil.
6 ears shucked corn
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cornstarch
1/4 cup chopped onion
1 tbl butter
1/3 cup water
a splash of cream, optional
2 tbl minced chives, optional
1. Working over a deep large bowl, cut the corn off the cobs and scrape the cobs with the back of a knife to extract the cob juices. You should have about 3 cups of corn.
2. Transfer 2 cups of the corn with their juices to a blender or food processor, add the salt and cornstarch and purée until smooth.
3. In a saucepan, sauté the onion in the butter until softened. Add the water and the remaining corn kernels and simmer for 2-3 minutes. Strain the corn purée through a sieve or mesh colander into the saucepan (you can skip this step, but it omits some of the annoying corn fibers). Add cream if using. Simmer the mixture a few minutes until thickened to desired consistency. Serve with chives.