Fresh sweet corn is the ne plus ultra of summer produce. Tomatoes bruise and squish more easily, but it is the deceptively delicate sweet corn that demands special treatment.
My husband and I just returned from a trip to Portland, Oregon, and while gnawing on sorry specimens of truck farm sweet corn at several dinners there, I discovered anew the tragic West Coast void of corn literacy. The folks out there just don’t get it. Probably even Alice Waters doesn’t truly get sweet corn. Here in the Mid-Ohio Valley, where Midwest bleeds into Appalachia, we really get it. Is there a more perfect food? It’s a vegetable and starch in one handy package, with tons of fiber to boot. Those tiny rows of plump kernels, each bursting with pure corn flavor, are so satisfying to crunch into. Some people work across the cob as they munch (“typewriter keys,” my mom calls it); some people nibble in a spiral fashion. I go willy-nilly, perhaps because I get overexcited.
Whether you live with one toe in the Muskingum or the Pacific, here’s a handy crash course in sweet corn literacy.
- DO make an entire meal of sweet corn. Even my meat-loving father understands that sweet corn is the centerpiece of dinner, and anything else is just auxiliary.
- DO aim to buy sweet corn the day you plan to prepare and serve it.
- DON’T buy sweet corn that was not harvested in the very recent past. Corn is a living thing, and every minute it spends separated from the stalk it grew on, its precious sugars convert to starches; tender, juicy corn becomes more akin to cow feed the longer it spends in transit.
- DON’T buy sweet corn from the grocery store. Ever.
- DO buy sweet corn from people you trust: farmers. Podunk farm stands are ideal. Ask when their corn was picked and they’ll tell you right up front. The answer you really want is “oh, a few hours ago.” I get my sweet corn at Witten Farm Market—they have many locations. My dad used to think Wagner’s out in Lowell was better, though he was disappointed with the first specimens he had from them this year. Dad’s been known to drive half an hour out of the way in search of the freshest sweet corn.
- DON’T remove the husk from the corn until you prepare it. The husk makes a protective shield around the corn, and once you remove it, the conversion of sugars to starches accelerates, resulting in corn that’s not as sweet or plump.
- DO try eating sweet corn naked (the corn, not you.) Good corn needs no butter. No salt, no pepper, no nothin’. I happily eat my corn unadorned. Grab three ears of corn, a pile of green beans, and a stack of ripe tomato slices, and you have the ideal summer meal.
- DO prepare sweet corn as follows, if you have a grill. This method keeps the kitchen from getting too hot and utilizes the corn husk as a nature-made disposable steaming device. It also facilitates some light caramelization on scattered corn kernels, but not enough to overpower the pure character of the corn itself.
Dad’s Grilled Sweet Corn
- Count on 3 ears per person; you can always cut the kernels off of leftover ears and freeze them for later, during those 10.75 dreary, sweet-corn-less months of the year.
- Go outside; have a big bucket nearby. Strip the very outer husks off of the corn, but keep most of the inner husks on there. Then pull off as much of the outer tassel of silk as you can. Soak the corn in water for at least half an hour, preferably up to two hours (that’s what the bucket is for).
- Light the grill. Aim for medium heat. If you have a big mess of corn, you’ll fill the entire grill, in which case the heat should be somewhat higher. Arrange the corn on the grill and close the lid. Every now and then, pop over to the grill to turn the corn. After half an hour or so, peek in one of the ears (be careful of steam!) If you are my dad, there’s probably something unrelated to corn that you need to argue with my mom about, so do this now.
- Wear clean work gloves for the next step, if possible: remove the husks and silk from the cooked ears of corn (your compost pile will be so happy!) The corn will be very hot, and the gloves allow maximum protection with maximum mobility. Put the ears of corn in some kind of covered container for serving. Call the family to the table, and make sure you provide salt, pepper, butter, and whatever else for those who choose to pollute their corn as they eat it. Also have an empty plate or platter on the table where people can set the stripped cobs of corn as they finish. It is very important to continue offering your guests ears of corn, just as a good server or bartender notices a drink a few sips away from emptying. Don’t let anyone leave the table until they have consumed at least two ears of corn. Probably there’s a peach or berry pie or cobbler for dessert, but you can always tell yourself that your third ear of corn is dessert.
The Marietta Sweet Corn Festival happens July 18-19 at Muskingum Park in downtown Marietta. Play corn hole, view antique engines, cheer on the kids in the corn eating contest, and buy ears of roasted sweet corn from Witten Farm. For details, visit www.mariettasweetcorn.com.