Making A Case For Corn Off The Cob
OK, people, I do not love corn on the cob. Yes, I know this tags me as vaguely un-American. And yes I know the summertime staple is a beloved culinary icon. And I'm also aware that corn on the cob fans often rhapsodize over the pairing of fresh, sweet corn and melted butter.
But when I'm offered an ear, I politely decline. That's the point at which family and friends look at me as if I'm slightly daft. "What? You don't want any?" No, sorry. Just pass me the potato salad, please.
So if I'm not a fan of gnawing on the roughly 800 kernels on each ear, what's left to talk about when it comes to corn? Plenty as it turns out — as long as you use a knife to carefully remove the kernels from the cob and then make salads, soups and other dishes with them.
There's a world of corn out there beyond the cob. There are corn chowders, corn fritters, corn pancakes and corn puddings, not to mention corn dogs and, of course, popcorn. Latin American cuisine, with its tortillas and tamales, arepas and tacos, relies heavily on corn. From the South, perhaps the epicenter of U.S. corn cuisine, there are hushpuppies, corn pudding and grits.
Use the kernels (raw or cooked) in refreshing summer salads or churn them into velvety corn ice cream, an ambrosial melding of fresh corn, cream and sugar. Then there's corn bread, to my mind, the perfect marrying of stone-ground corn meal, tart buttermilk and sugar. When it's baking, it fills my kitchen with sweet, earthy aromas.
I discovered my love for corn recipes when, years ago as a student in Boston, I was taken to the city's venerable Durgin-Park restaurant for dinner. When the dessert menu arrived, I spotted an item labeled, intriguingly, Indian pudding. (No one really knows where the name comes from, but the early New England settlers called corn, Indian corn.) People have been known to say many unpleasant things about Indian pudding's somewhat off-putting rust-coloration even though it's typically topped with whipped cream, or my favorite, vanilla ice cream. In fact, when you want a delicious, hearty dessert, nothing can beat the sublime interplay of the warm corn meal pudding with cold ice cream.
Corn (also known as maize) is perhaps the most American of vegetables. "When you eat corn you eat American history in every kernel," Betty Fussell, author of The Story of Corn, wrote in an email. Corn was first cultivated in Mexico around 7,000 years ago. It spread through North and South America, became Native Americans' main crop and then a staple in the diets of early settlers.
The U.S. remained a corn-crazy country. If you're from Nebraska, you cheer on the Cornhuskers football team. Mitchell, S.D. is home to the Corn Palace, a regional community center. And there's the National Sweet Corn Eating Championship which took place last April in West Palm Beach, Fla. Thirty-five ears in one sitting? No problem for Bob Shoudt, this year's reigning champion.
Today, however, only a small percentage of corn grown in the U.S is consumed by humans; the majority is for cattle feed.
Corn for eating once came in a rainbow of colors — black, blue, purple, red, deep yellow and orange. These older varieties had more beta carotene than today's ears, but the nutrients have been largely bred out over the years. Today, if you buy the popular yellow or white Supersweet variety, the ear is composed of 25 to 30 percent sugar or more, says Fussell. Each ear also contains a moderate amount of fiber, about 3 grams.
Fussell cautions not to get too caught up in discussions about corn's nutritive value.
"Like any food, choosing corn should be for taste first," she says. "Anything else is secondary."
For corn recipes, it's always best if possible to buy fresh corn on the cob from a local farm stand. Just-picked corn can keep in the refrigerator for up to five days. For peak freshness, though, use corn the same day you buy it. Avoid corn with kernels, husks and silk that are dried or brown. I find in a pinch that frozen corn on the cob or packaged frozen kernels from the supermarket work perfectly well in most recipes.
So with fall just around the corner, I'm thankful that family members and friends will no longer be waving cobs in my face accusing me of some kind of culinary heresy. Give me the corn kernels. Give me the cob. Then give me a pot. Please.
This recipe comes from my friend Renee Marton, a culinary historian. Earlier in her career she put in a stint as a chef at the legendary New York City Meatpacking District restaurant Florent. These days she teaches cooking classes, many about seafood, at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. My tasters licked their bowls when served this chowder. It's the bacon, the fresh clam broth and the touch of cream. But don't be put off if you don't have access to fresh broth. The bottled kind will work just fine.
Makes 8 servings
8 ears corn, shucked
6 cups white wine
6 cups fresh or bottled clam juice
1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium red onion, diced
4 strips bacon
2 medium potatoes peeled and diced
1 1/2 dozen littleneck clams
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
2-3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)
1 bunch scallions, white and some green sliced into thin rounds
1 bunch chives, finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Husk the corn. Scrape the corn from the cobs with a sharp knife. Use the back of the knife to press the corn milk from the cobs into a small bowl. Set aside.
In a large soup pot, mix the wine and clam juice and bring to a simmer. Simmer the cobs for 30 minutes. Remove the cobs, strain the liquid and simmer until it's reduced by about half.
In a frying pan, heat the olive oil and saute the onion until translucent. Remove onion from the pan and set aside. Add bacon to the pan. Fry until it's crisp. Remove the bacon and drain it on paper towels. Break the bacon into small pieces. Add the bacon, onions, potatoes and clams to the broth and bring the mixture to a boil. Simmer the broth for about 8 minutes, or until the potatoes are almost done and the clams are open.
Add the corn kernels and the corn milk. Simmer over low heat for another 2 to 3 minutes, just enough to heat the chowder through. Add salt, pepper and hot pepper flakes.
In a small bowl, mix the cornstarch, 1 tablespoon at a time, with a little broth. Add some more hot soup to the cornstarch until it measures 1 cup and mix the cornstarch mixture well. Return the cornstarch mixture to the soup and simmer it for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the cream, if using. Stir the soup to combine all the ingredients. Cook the chowder over medium heat until it's heated through. (Do not boil the chowder or the cream will curdle.)
To serve, pour the chowder into individual bowls and garnish each serving with scallions, chives and fresh parsley.
This cornbread is a conglomeration of corn bread recipes I've tried over the years. Everyone loves it and it's particularly delicious when it's served warm straight out of the oven with a dollop of peach jam. When I make it, I try to use fresh corn kernels, but frozen ones work fine. The crunch from the almonds and the corn kernels adds some texture and the whole wheat flour lends this corn bread a nice touch of nuttiness. Feel free to bake the cornbread and freeze it for later use. That's what I do. Otherwise, my husband would eat the entire pan in one sitting.
Makes 10 to 12 servings
2 1/4 cups whole-wheat pastry flour (regular whole-wheat flour works, too, but will make a rougher textured bread)
1 3/4 cups stone-ground cornmeal
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted roughly chopped
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups whole milk
3/4 cup canola oil
3 large eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 cups fresh corn kernels (3-4 ears)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a large glass baking dish.
In a large bowl, mix together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, almonds, baking powder, baking soda and salt until they are well blended.
In another large bowl, whisk together the milk, oil, eggs and buttermilk. Add the milk mixture to the dry ingredients and stir until just blended. (Be careful not to overmix or the cornbread will turn out tough and dry.)
Husk the corn and remove the kernels with a sharp knife. Fold the kernels into the batter. Pour the batter into an oiled dish. Bake the cornbread until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, or 40-45 minutes. Cut the cornbread into squares. Serve it warm with peach preserves.
My tasters wrinkled their noses when they first saw the dish of Indian pudding I set before them. Let's face it. Indian Pudding will never win any beauty contests. But once I set a large scoop of ice cream on top, and prodded them to taste the molasses-scented confection, they were immediately won over. Indian pudding is a great dessert to serve on a cold winter's night. Traditionally, it's graced the Thanksgiving table of many a New England family. Be warned: Making Indian pudding is not for the impatient. It needs to cook slowly for hours. I've adapted this recipe from one I found years ago in the original The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne.
Makes 6 servings
1 quart whole milk
1/2 cups stone-ground yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons melted butter
1/2 cup molasses (or 1/4 cup molasses, 1/4 cup light brown sugar)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ginger
2 large eggs
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
In a medium pot, scald the milk and pour slowly over the cornmeal, whisking constantly until the mixture is smooth. (You want to avoid lumps but if there are a few, this is a very forgiving dish.) Set the pot on a medium high heat. Bring it to a boil. Immediately reduce the mixture to a simmer and cook it for 10-15 minutes until the cornmeal mixture thickens.
In a medium bowl, combine the butter, molasses, salt, cinnamon and ginger. Beat the eggs well and add them along with molasses mixture to the cornmeal and milk.
Pour the pudding into a greased 2-quart casserole dish and set it in a larger dish. Pour hot water into the larger dish to create a water bath. Bake the pudding 3 to 4 hours or until it is set. (If you like a lighter pudding, 3 hours will likely suffice.)
Serve the pudding at room temperature topped with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. If you're not planning to serve the pudding immediately, refrigerate it and bring it back to room temperature when you're ready to eat it.
I am a huge fan of the James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Claudia Fleming's ambrosial desserts. She serves them at The North Fork Table and Inn, on Long Island's bucolic North Fork, a restaurant she runs with her chef husband Gerry Hayden. Rich and delicious, this corn ice cream has a distinct corn flavoring. Fleming recommends using white corn. I decided to use yellow instead since I wanted the ice cream to have a distinctly corn-like hue. I added the peanut topping, which provides some contrasting crunch.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
4 ears of sweet summer corn (white or yellow)
2 cups whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup granulated sugar
8 large egg yolks
Husk the corn. Remove the kernels from the cobs with a sharp knife and place them in a medium pot. Cut the cobs in half for easier handling and add them to the pot along with the milk, cream and half the sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil. Remove it from the heat. Remove the corn cobs and set them aside.
Using a standing blender or immersion blender, puree the corn-milk mixture Set aside. Return the cobs to the mixture for about 1 hour. This will enhance the corn flavor of the ice cream.
Remove the cobs. Bring the mixture back to the heat and allow it to come to a scald. Turn off the heat.
In a small bowl whisk the yolks with the remaining sugar. Slowly add 1 cup of the corn mixture to the yolks whisking constantly. Add the yolk mixture to the pot while whisking continuously. Cook over medium low heat, stirring continuously with a heatproof rubber spatula until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon.
Pass the custard through a fine sieve, pressing down on the solids. Discard the corn kernels. Cool the custard in an ice bath, then cover and chill it at least 4 hours. Freeze the custard in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.
2 cups peanuts
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons water
In a frying pan, toast the nuts, stirring frequently so they don't burn, for 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the frying pan from the heat. Transfer the nuts to a small bowl and set aside.
In a small bowl combine the spices. Place the butter, sugar, honey and water in a frying pan. Add the spice mix. Cook the mixture in the frying pan for about 2 minutes on low heat until it begins to thicken. Add the peanuts and toss them in the honey, brown sugar and butter mixture. Spoon over the corn ice cream and serve.