Published in the Shelter Island Reporter on August 25, 2016
The best corn of the year is on offer at every farm stand on the East End and I’m doing my best to eat it all.
This is no idle threat. I once ate 11 ears of corn at a sitting; a culinary feat I achieved by going without salt or butter, my mouth moving over each cob like the daisy wheel of an electric typewriter (anyone typed on one of those?) moving steadily across the pages of my senior thesis.
In talking to people about corn, I’ve learned that ordinarily rational people could have arbitrary opinions about the right way to choose and cook it, preferences that were often passed down from a mother or grandmother. Some espouse cooking techniques so prescriptive they border on superstition, as if the ghostly hand of granny could reach across the stove and take the ear out of their grip if they dared to dip it in some mayonnaise, sprinkle it with a little mint, or even butter it.
I think there are many strong opinions about how to prepare sweet corn because when it’s fresh, it tastes delicious no matter what you do to it. The difference between really good corn — sweet, with plenty of milky juice and shiny round kernels — and not so great — bland, starchy with dented or dull kernels that cling to your teeth — is heartbreaking when you consider that just two days ago, those starchy bland ears were probably delicious.
Here are some rules of corn selection.
1. The shorter the distance between the place where the corn was grown, and where it is cooked, the better. Hence the claim some make that in their family, corn was only picked after the water began to boil on a Coleman stove set up in the cornfield.
2. Do not open, strip, or otherwise invade the privacy of the kernels until just before you cook them.
3. A promising ear of corn is thick around the base, the leaves around the ear are tight, and the cut end and the tassel are moist and not shriveled.
Here are three ways of preparing corn that may violate the dietary customs of your family, but are delicious alternatives to the five-minute boil/melted butter practice. You can either grill or boil the corn and then roll it in cheese and spices, after first spreading the hot ears with something to help all that good stuff adhere. For elotes, a traditional Mexican street-food version of corn on the cob, Maria Schultheis of Maria’s Kitchen suggested I use a pinch of epazote in the boiling water. I really like the green, herby flavor it gives the corn.
Alas, my family never ate street-food style corn. In the Kentucky kitchen of my grandmother, Ruby Robey (a farm wife with her own personal corn patch), sweet corn was cut off the cob and cooked in its own milky juices for five minutes in a hot cast iron pan with a little butter. Her enthusiasm for cooking the kernels after cutting them off the cob owes a lot to the fact that our family was blessed with very good corn, but very bad teeth.
6 ears of corn, husked
A large pinch of epazote
1 cup cotija, or feta cheese crumbled
¼ cup chopped cilantro
½ cup mayonnaise
“Tajin classic” seasoning, or your own mixture of ground ancho chili, black pepper, and lime zest.
1. Bring six quarts of water to boil with the epazote. Cook the husked ears of corn for five minutes in boiling water.
2. Mix the cheese and cilantro and spread it on a piece of parchment or wax paper.
3. Smear a very thin layer of mayonnaise on each ear while its still hot, roll it in the cheese mixture and sprinkle the seasonings on top. Serve immediately.
6 ears of corn, with the husks pulled down, still attached to the ear (use the husks as a handle), and the silk removed
½ cup melted butter in a plate
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
¼ cup finely chopped mint
1. On a hot grill, with the lid on, cook the ears 5-10 minutes, turning only once to allow some char marks to appear. The husk should smoke and scorch a bit, and the smoke will impart flavor.
2. Mix the cheese with the chopped mint, salt, and pepper, and spread on a piece of parchment or wax paper.
3. Roll the grilled ears in the melted butter.
4. Roll the ears in the cheese/mint mixture and serve immediately.
Ruby Robey’s Fried Corn
6 ears of the freshest possible corn
4 tablespoons butter
¼ cup cream (optional)
1. Test to see that the corn is fresh enough by sticking a fork into a few kernels to make sure a milky juice comes out.
2. Holding the ear at a right angle to a bowl slice the kernels off the cob, gathering the juice and kernels in the bowl. Scrape the cob with the side of knife after all the kernels are cut off to extract any remaining juices.
3. Heat the iron skillet on high heat, and add the butter. When the butter is melted and foamy add the corn kernels and their liquid and cook over on a medium high flame for no more than three or four minutes, until the corn is just heated through. The liquid should not completely cook off, and if the mixture seems too dry, add a splash of cream. Serve immediately.