Cool, rainy days may have dampened some plans this summer, but the weather helped produce a bountiful crop of Maryland sweet corn that can be enjoyed at this weekend's Labor Day picnics.
"It has been an excellent year for sweet corn," said Steve Weber, who sells corn and other seasonal vegetables at his farm stand on Proctor Lane in Carney.
"Cool nights make sweet corn," he said. Also, when corn grows fast, as it has this summer, it has less time to be attacked by pests.
"It's the best it's ever been," said Michael Rork, owner and chef at Town Dock Restaurant in St. Michaels. Rork said the sweet corn he's been buying at his local farmers' market has been excellent for roasted corn salsa and on salmon and rockfish.
Field corn, used mostly for animal feed and in processed foods, dates back thousands of years. But sweet corn has been grown only for a few hundred years, gaining popularity after the Civil War.
In the past decade, sweet corn has gotten a boost from science. New hybrids with names like Bodacious and Temptation have enhanced sweetness genes with significantly more sugar than older varieties such as Silver Queen.
Most Maryland farmers have switched to new hybrids, said Tony Evans, a Maryland Department of Agriculture spokesman. Besides their sweeter taste, the new varieties also are crunchier and hold their flavor longer, even after a few days of cold storage.
Despite changing weather conditions, corn production in Maryland has remained steady for the past several years at more than 90 million ears, thanks to irrigation and other techniques.
But this year, demand appears to have increased because people expect a good corn crop with the cooler, wet weather, said Tom Albright, who operates Albright Farms with his family in Monkton. Also, "If it's hot and sticky, people don't want to cook," he said. "Perception really drives the market."
So do summer holidays, so it is important for farmers to have a big patch of corn ready for Labor Day, said Weber.
The most common way to enjoy sweet corn is right off the cob. Husked corn will cook in boiling water in just a few minutes. Sweet corn can also be steamed with or without the husks on. Husked corn can be grilled for five to seven minutes or microwaved for three minutes, turning once.
Butter, salt and pepper are the flavorings of choice for fresh sweet corn, although some cooks recommend Old Bay seasoning, butter with fresh basil, cilantro or tarragon. For a simple corn topping, add one teaspoon of chili powder to two tablespoons of butter. Other cooks forgo butter and make toppings with mayonnaise and Parmesan cheese.
At Weber's Cider Mill Farm, corn fritters and corn pudding are favorites. Both are easy to make with corn cut right off the cob.
Uncooked sweet corn kernels are great in salads, said Patricia Mack, author of "Corn: Produce Cookbook Series" (Record Books, $16.75). Mack's book also includes recipes for corn soups, corn quiche and even cookies with corn kernels in place of chocolate chips.
Evans, who enjoys adding sweet corn kernels to gazpacho, has several tips for corn shoppers.
First, look for full ears, plump kernels and a stalk end that has not turned brown. Sweet corn loses flavor if it is not kept cool, so moist, green husks are a good sign.
"Plastic bags are an abomination for sweet corn," he warned, but if you must use one, put the corn in silk-first to avoid puncturing the bag with the stalk and get the ears out of the bag and into the refrigerator as soon as possible.
Finally, corn will taste fresh, even hours after cooking, if you use this simple trick. For every six ears, add one tablespoon of sugar and one tablespoon of cider vinegar to the water. Cut off the heat when the pot reaches boiling and leave the corn in the water until ready to serve. To reheat, warm the water but do not boil.
Regardless of the recipe, Marylanders love sweet corn, usually preferring white corn to the yellow corn that is popular in other parts of the country.
According to the Maryland Cooperative Extension, one ear of white sweet corn has 83.2 calories and only 1 gram of fat (before adding butter or other toppings). It provides 8 percent of the U.S. recommended daily allowance of fiber and 8 percent of vitamin C.
Even though demand traditionally drops off dramatically after Labor Day, Maryland farmers will harvest sweet corn into October. So there is plenty of time left to enjoy one of the great treats of the season, said Evans.
Corn, Tomato and Onion Salad With Herbal Dressing
Makes 4 servings
3 very ripe medium tomatoes, diced
1 Spanish onion, peeled and chopped
1 cup fresh, raw corn kernels
1 dozen basil leaves sliced into strips
2 tablespoons tarragon vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 to 1 teaspoon chopped marjoram
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1 small garlic clove, minced
1/4 teaspoon seasoned salt freshly ground black pepper to taste