Best-cooked corn is barely cooked corn

August 23, 1992|By Pat Dailey | Pat Dailey,Chicago Tribune

In her book, "The Story of Corn," author Betty Fussell tells readers just about anything they might need to know about corn -- except how to cook it -- or not cook it, as the case may be. The original manuscript of the book contained recipes, but they didn't make the final cut.

Sprinkled throughout, though, are vital bits of information about cooking with corn. For example, Ms. Fussell tells readers that from the moment it is plucked from the spiky stalk, corn's natural sugar begins converting to starch. As the sugar goes, so, too, does the wonderful sweetness. So there's the first rule of corn cookery: Cook it as soon as possible after picking.

Another hint from the pages of Ms. Fussell's book: Don't necessarily trust your favorite tried-and-true cookbook, the one handed down to you from your mother or grandmother. Chances are, it will lead you to woefully overcooked corn.

Corn is sweeter and more tender now than it used to be, so what worked in the pot then doesn't apply today. While it used to be that three minutes of cooking was in order, now it is much too long. Heat, as Ms. Fussell points out, speeds the conversion of sugar to starch. Thus, overcooked corn not only will be mushy, it will lack its characteristic sweet taste. With today's hybrids, corn on the cob should be plunged into boiling water and cooked just long enough to warm it. This might take only 30 seconds. For salads, you might want to heed Ms. Fussell's counsel and use it raw.

The recipes below have been developed with fresh corn, cut from the cob. Off season, frozen corn can be used.

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Corn, caramelized onions

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large onion, cut in strips

1 red bell pepper, seeded, diced

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

2 cups fresh corn kernels

salt, pepper to taste

Heat oil in a large non-stick skillet. Add onion and cook over high heat, stirring often, until it is tender and browned at the edges, 10 to 12 minutes. Add red pepper and cumin seeds; cook until pepper is tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Add vinegar, then corn, salt and pepper. Cook just until heated through. Serve hot.

Rice and summer corn

salad

Makes 8 servings.

2 cups cooked white rice

3 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, cut in small cubes

1 cup fresh corn kernels

1 tomato, seeded, finely diced

4 green onions, thinly sliced

1 small zucchini, finely diced

1 yellow or red bell pepper, seeded, finely diced

1 hot chili pepper, seeded if desired, minced

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and toss well. Chill well before serving. The salad can be made a day in advance.

Sauteed corn

# and sugar snap peas

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 pound sugar snap peas

3 green onions, cut in thin rings

1 cup fresh sweet corn kernels

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint

salt to taste

Melt butter in a large skillet. Add peas, and cook over high heat just until they begin to soften, 2 to 3 minutes. Add green onions and corn and cook just until heated through, about 1 minute. Remove from heat, and add mint and salt. Serve hot.

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