Bending your ear about buying and cooking corn

July 12, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Recently I spent a few days in corn heaven. That would be the cornfields of the Eastern Shore, where, thanks to a "big drink" provided by the late June rainfall, the corn crop was thriving, growing faster than condos.

The sweet corn sold in the farmers' market and even supermarkets showed up with its husks and silks still intact. This is a good sign, one that signals the beginning of the real corn season.

In the winter, I have bought Florida corn in those peek-a-boo packages. These are the ones that present partially husked ears of corn, wrapped in plastic, offering a glimpse of the kernels.

The packages allow you to avoid dealing with flighty corn silks or encountering a corn worm. But in my view, unless you are shucking husks and peeling silks, you are missing the true joy of corn.

My preferred way to buy corn is to feel the kernels with my fingers through the sealed husks. This keeps the husks intact, and that slows the process of the sugar in the corn turning to starch. Husks seal in the moisture, helping to keep the kernels fresh. Perhaps the strongest proponent of "fingering the corn" that I have come across is Betty Fussell, author of the award-winning 1992 history, The Story of Corn, and a subsequent 1995 cookbook, Crazy for Corn.

"I have seen people at markets do violence to ear after ear," Fussell wrote in her cookbook, "stripping back the husks with frenzy and tossing the cobs back in the pile as if they were discarding so many ravished virgins. Presumably they do this to see that the kernels are filled out all the way to the top of each cob and that the husks hide no nasty worms. But you can tell whether a cob is completely filled out by feeling the top from the outside of the husk."

As for the corn worm, not only is it harmless, Fussell said, it could also be a sign that the corn is grown without pervasive chemicals.

"Be tender with the corn," Fussell advised, "and it will repay you in kind."

Most of what I know about corn comes from the hands-on experience of plowing through ear after succulent ear. But lately I have supplemented these dinner-table episodes with some "book learnin' " about corn. I read The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006) by Michael Pollan, a fascinating look at the origins of our food. Corn, he said, is such a pervasive part of the North American diet that a scientist who examined isotopes in bodies has concluded that we Americans look like "corn chips with legs."

According to Pollan, some of the Mexican descendants of the ancient Mayans still refer to themselves as "corn walking." He said a comparable description of modern-day North Americans, who encounter corn in everything from Cokes to Big Macs, would be "processed corn walking."

I cracked open another book, Moosewood Restaurant Celebrates (2003), to get ideas on various ways to cook my pile of husked corn. I found four methods: boiling, steaming in the microwave, grilling and oven roasting.

Boiling was the simplest. I dropped a shucked ear in a pot of unsalted boiling water and cooked the ear at a steady boil for about a minute. Corn that isn't fresh from the field, as this was, could be cooked a little longer - three to five minutes, the Moosewood book said.

For the microwave procedure, I kept the husks on an ear of corn and zapped it on high for two minutes. For grilling, I took the husks off an ear, slathered the kernels with butter and then let the ear sit over a medium fire for three to five minutes, until the kernels started to brown.

For oven roasting, I preheated the oven to 450 degrees, peeled back the husks, removed the silks and coated the kernels with softened butter, then pulled the husks back over the kernels. I put the ear in a pan, covered it with foil and let it cook for 20 minutes, a long time for corn.

Oven roasting was, I concluded, the best method to cook a lot of corn for a crowd. The grilled corn had a unique, toasted flavor. The microwaved corn was moist, a good way to cook one ear.

The boiled corn, an old favorite, not only tasted authentic, it felt familiar. When the hot corn water was dumped in the sink, a fragrant steamy cloud wafted through the kitchen, making the room hot and humid. That, as Maryland residents know, is how summer feels here, in the perfect corn-eating climate.

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