Cooking Corn -- In Brief


June 25, 1995|By ROB KASPER

Folks have strong views on how sweet corn should be cooked. There are the steamers, the boilers, the roasters, the grillers. There are those who say you should put salt in the cooking water. Others say don't put salt in the water; that makes the corn tough. Instead put in a pinch of sugar.

I thought I had tried every method of cooking corn until I talked with Betty Fussell. She told me I should cook the ears 30 seconds -- that's right, 30 seconds -- in boiling water, with the husks still covering the corn. The husks keep the moisture in the corn, add flavor and "look quite spectacular," she said. Ms. Fussell is not just any old corn cooker. After writing "The Story of Corn" in 1992, she was dubbed the "Queen of Corn." She has since written a recipe-filled work, "Crazy for Corn" (HarperCollins, 1995; $16). And she has corn magnets hanging on the refrigerator in her Manhattan apartment.

When I spoke with her by telephone she told me that most modern-day sweet corn tastes terrific raw. The idea that we have to cook corn a long time has been carried over, she said, from the days when corn was not as sweet as it is now.

Changes in the genetics of corn have produced supersweet varieties that are ready to eat right from the fields, she said. Their sugar content is high and the texture is good, mostly. You just have to get used to the idea of chomping into raw corn.

But for those folks who like their corn cooked, or at least warmed, Ms. Fussell recommends cooking the ears with the green tender husks, the ones right next to the kernels, still on.

Ms. Fussell said husks protect what she calls the "chastity" of the corn. She gets upset when she sees shoppers rip off husks as they hunt for perfect, worm-free ears of corn. In her view, such shoppers "do violence to ear after ear, stripping back the husks with frenzy and tossing cobs back in the pile as if they were discarding so many ravished virgins."

A more sensitive way to shop for corn, she told me, is to feel the top of the ear from the outside the husk. That way you can determine whether the ear is completely filled out.

Corn worms don't worry her. In fact, these days the appearance of a corn worm could be considered proof that the crop was free of heavy doses of pesticides.

It is OK to peel away the coarse, outer husks, she said, but you should leave on the tender, interior husks. As for dealing with corn silks, most of them will peel off after cooking, when you remove the green husks, she added.

In Ms. Fussell's mind, the minor problems of keeping the husks on are outweighed by the benefits. True, you have to take the husks off when they are hot and then remove the remaining corn silks, but "the husks not only increase the flavor, they steam the corn rather than boil it, and they retain the heat," she said. "So your corn stays warmer longer."

Removing the steaming husks without burning your hands can be tricky, she points out. But she seems confident it is a maneuver most folks can master. She said she does it barehanded.

The job of peeling off the husks and silks becomes less of a problem, she said, if you think of corn as an entree, not a mere side dish. "Give corn its own course," she said, "don't just whip it in there on the side of the plate."

Ms. Fussell said she adds neither salt nor sugar to her corn-cooking water. Instead she takes her largest pot, fills it with water, and brings the water to a vigorous boil. Then she drops four to six husk-covered ears in the water, and lets them swim for about 30 seconds.

I also talked about corn with John Selby, a Centreville farmer and former schoolteacher, who is perhaps best known as Farmer John. That is the name of the fruit and vegetable stand he operates on Route 8 in Stevensville, just south of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Farmer John agreed with Ms. Fussell's view that corn is often cooked too long. He said his wife, Peg, cooks their corn just a few minutes in a pan that has about 1 inch of boiling water. Too much water, Farmer John said, can dilute the flavor of the corn.

Farmer John and his wife take the husks off their corn before they cook it. They said they do not want to bother with removing the hot husks and corn silks at the dinner table.

Nonetheless, Farmer John, who is 78, is familiar with the practice of cooking corn with the husks on. Corn has been cooked that way for years at Eastern Shore crab feasts, he said. "It all comes out of the steamer -- the crabs with their shells, the corn with their husks," he said, adding that if any corn worms show up, they get sprinkled with crab seasoning.

I plan to give the husk-on corn-cooking method a try this summer. But as even Ms. Fussell admitted, getting folks to change their corn-cooking habits is difficult.

This summer, for instance, she is going to Lincoln, Neb., for a family get-together. The corn served there will be husked, she said. The folks at her family reunion grew up cooking corn with husks removed, and now, at the age of 70 and up, they are not about to change.

I thought of another reason the corn is cooked with the husks off in Lincoln. The residents of Nebraska are, after all, known to the world as "the Corn Huskers."

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