Susan Russo is a food writer in San Diego. She publishes stories, recipes and photos on her cooking blog, Food Blogga. When she isn't writing about her Italian family back in Rhode Island or life with her husband in Southern California, she can be found milling around a local farmers market buying a lot more food than two people could possibly eat.
Having grown up in New England, I hold some truths to be self evident. For example, yellow corn is always sweeter than white. I learned this from my parents.
Nearly every weekend of every summer growing up, we'd get in the car and drive along Rhode Island's meandering country roads in search of farm stands selling fresh sweet corn. Often my dad would get out, check the corn and walk back empty-handed, declaring, "Not yellow enough. It won't be sweet." When we would find the right stand selling bright yellow ears of corn, Dad would return with bags full, filling the entire back seat of our 1975 Pontiac Grand Prix, except for the space I was occupying.
So one of my biggest disappointments about moving to Southern California was discovering that almost all corn sold here is white. "How can that be?" I thought. "Doesn't California have the best of all produce?"
It was then that I learned a harsh, real-world truth: Some people think white corn is sweeter than yellow. My parents had insulated me from this reality my whole life.
Although my family would vehemently disagree, the truth is there is no correlation between the color of corn and its sweetness. (Yes, I know, countless numbers of you are firing up your e-mail right now to set me straight, but read on first.)
Maize (zea mays), known in the U.S. as "corn," is a grain that was domesticated in Mesoamerica between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago. It became the staple food of early American cultures such as the Incas, the Mayas and the Aztecs. After Native Americans introduced corn to Christopher Columbus, he took some back to Europe, from where it eventually spread throughout the world.
Today, corn is the world's third-largest food crop and can be found on every continent except Antarctica. In the U.S., the world's leading corn producer, the season varies in different geographical regions but generally runs from June to October and peaks from July to September.
Years ago, freshly picked sweet corn would lose about half of its sweetness within 24 hours. After a couple of days, it would lose nearly all of its sweetness and become unpalatably starchy.
So American plant breeders in the 19th century began developing hybrid corn to create a sweeter, more robust, higher-yielding plant. Since then, virtually every ear of sweet corn grown in the U.S. has been developed with similar characteristics: to taste sweet and stay sweet long after it's harvested.
Through years of research and breeding, three types of improved corn were developed and are still used today. The first type is normal sugary, which is mildly sweet. The second is sugar-enhanced, which has twice the sugar content as normal sugary. Finally, there is the supersweet type, which has nearly three times the sugar as the normal sugary variety. It is this supersweet corn that accounts for the vast majority of sweet corn produced in the U.S. today.
Whether you buy yellow, white or bi-color corn, chances are you're getting the supersweet variety. That's because supersweet comes in all three colors. The corn's color (which is derived from carotene) does not have any correlation with its sugar content.
Actually, people's preferences for corn color are based largely on where they're from and what they ate as a child. For instance, New Englanders generally prefer yellow, or butter and sugar (a beloved bi-color variety), while Californians usually favor white corn.
New and improved isn't always better, though. While today's supersweet corn tastes sweet and has a shelf life of up to one week, it also has fewer soluble polysaccharides, which means the kernels are crunchier and less creamy. Also, some people find supersweet corn cloyingly sweet and lament a lack of good old-fashioned corn flavor.
When possible, buy locally grown, freshly picked corn, since the shorter the time between farm to table, the better the flavor. When selecting corn, hold the ear in your hand; it should feel heavy for its size. Look for fresh, taut, green husks and dry, light-colored silks. Gently pull back the top of the husk; the kernels should be plump and evenly spaced. If you're not going to eat the corn right away, keep them in their husks (to retain moisture), place them inside a plastic bag and refrigerate in the crisper drawer.
Corn is remarkably versatile. It can be boiled, steamed, pressure-cooked, microwaved, roasted, grilled and sauteed. It can even be eaten raw (which is exceptionally crunchy and refreshing in salads and salsas).
The most popular way to eat corn in the U.S. is to boil it until just tender, then slather it with lots of butter and salt. The best part is that it's expected to be eaten with your hands, so delight in its finger-licking-good messiness.
Corn is a staple of many homey comfort dishes, such as corn bread, muffins, biscuits, grits, fritters, chowder and succotash. It dresses up well, too. Pair it with lobster, arugula and a champagne vinaigrette for an elegant salad, or saute it with some lemon, ginger and mint for an exciting side.
One of my favorite dishes is Mexican grilled corn: Hot, tender, smoky corn is brushed with a lime-spiked mayonnaise then rolled in crumbly cotija anejo, a salty, mild-flavored Mexican cheese. After one taste, you'll wonder how you ever lived without it.
No matter how you have it, just have it while it's peak corn season.
By the way, the last time my mom visited me in San Diego, we went to the local farmers market. After walking around for a while, she met up with me carrying several bags and said, "I bought you lots of beautiful produce. I got strawberries, peaches and baby zucchini. I didn't buy any corn, though. All they had was white."
It was three years ago at a Long Beach farmers market that I first tasted Mexican grilled corn, and I have never looked back. Smoky grilled corn is happily drowned in a lime-spiked mayonnaise sauce, then rolled in crumbly cotija anejo cheese (a salty, mild-flavored Mexican cheese) and sprinkled with lime juice and cayenne pepper. It is addictive. Just be sure to have a lot of napkins on hand when you eat this. Or, if it's just too messy for you, cut off the grilled kernels, mix them with the ingredients and eat it with a spoon. It may be neater, but it's not nearly as much fun.
Makes 4 servings
4 ears sweet corn
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon lime juice
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper or chili powder
Salt, to taste
2/3 cup cotija anejo cheese*, crumbled
Extra cayenne pepper or chili powder for sprinkling
Fresh finely chopped cilantro for optional garnish
Soak corn (in husks) in cold water for 25 to 30 minutes.
Prepare a medium-hot grill. Peel back the corn husks, leaving them attached at the end. Remove the silk. Pull the husks back up and tie with a spare piece of husk or a small piece of cooking twine. Place the ears on the grill. Cook 20 to 25 minutes, turning several times to ensure even roasting. The kernels should be soft when fully cooked.
If you'd like the kernels more charred, then simply follow the above instructions, but cook in husks for 15 minutes only. Then cool ears slightly, pull back the husks (to use as handles) and place the ears directly on the grill (with husks overhanging the side) for 5 to 7 minutes, or until they reach desired level of charring.
Place crumbled cheese on a plate large enough to fit an ear of corn. In a small bowl, mix the mayonnaise, lime juice, cayenne pepper or chili powder and salt. When the corn is cooked, brush each ear with some mayo sauce, then roll in the cheese. Serve with lime wedges, additional cayenne pepper or chili powder and fresh finely chopped cilantro.
** Cotija anejo, a mild-flavored Mexican cheese with a crumbly texture, can be found in Mexican markets or in the refrigerator section of most major supermarkets. Queso fresco, another mild Mexican cheese, is a good substitute and also can be found in most major supermarkets.
Note: If you are unable to grill outdoors, then you can oven-roast the corn. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place corn in husks (no need to soak first) directly on the middle rack of the oven for 30 minutes, or until corn is soft to the touch. Allow to cool slightly, then remove husks and silks, and add toppings.
Corn-Scallion-Cheddar Biscuits With Cilantro Butter
Basic biscuits are elevated to something special when baked with big, fresh corn kernels, robust scallions and sharp cheddar cheese. These savory biscuits are rich in flavor yet tender and crumbly. Enjoy them for brunch, as a snack or as a side with barbecued meat. Just make sure you eat them when they're hot out of oven so the cilantro butter melts easily all over them and each bite reveals warm, gooey cheese.
Makes 15 (3.5-inch round biscuits) or 9 (2.5-inch round biscuits)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into half-inch pieces
1/2 cup fresh corn kernels
1/8 cup scallions, finely chopped
1/8 cup red bell pepper, diced
1 tablespoon green jalapeno, finely chopped (or to taste; the more seeds, the hotter the dish)
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, finely chopped
1/4 cup sharp white cheddar cheese, diced
1 cup whole milk, plus 1 tablespoon
1/4 cup butter, slightly softened
1 tablespoon fresh finely chopped cilantro
Place rack in center of oven and preheat to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. Using your fingertips, blend in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add raw corn, scallions, red bell pepper, jalapeno, cilantro, cheese and 1 cup milk. Stir with a spoon just until a dough forms.
Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and dust the top lightly with flour. Knead the dough 4 to 6 times. (The less you work the dough, the lighter the biscuits will be).
Roll the dough into an 8-inch circle that is a half-inch thick. Cut out biscuits with a biscuit or cookie cutter; gather together the dough scraps to form additional biscuits. Transfer biscuits to the parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush with remaining 1 tablespoon milk.
Bake biscuits for 15 to18 minutes, or until they are puffed and golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly. Serve hot with cilantro butter.
Corn gets along well with many fresh herbs, including basil, cilantro, parsley, tarragon and, one of my personal favorites, mint. This easy-to-make summertime side dish enlivens sauteed corn by pairing it with aromatic ginger, tangy lemon and cool mint.
To remove corn kernels, cut each ear of corn in half. Stand one half of corn on its steady base and, using a sharp chef's knife, remove kernels by cutting directly down toward the cutting board. Turn the cob after each cut, until all of the kernels have been removed. Discard cobs.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, melt butter. Saute corn for 2 to 3 minutes, or until lightly browned. Add the fresh ginger, cayenne and salt, cooking 1 to 2 minutes more. The corn should be cooked through yet still firm. Add the lemon juice, lemon zest (if using), and fresh mint and stir well. Season with salt, to taste, and serve immediately.
Roasting vegetables enhances their flavors by drawing out their natural sugars and aromas. In this Southwest-inspired salsa, sweet corn is balanced by slightly tart, citrusy tomatillos and pungent onions. Serve this salsa with extra-thick corn chips for a crowd-pleasing appetizer, or serve it atop grilled fish, chicken, pork or steak for a satisfying main meal.
Yields 2 cups
1 ear of sweet corn, removed from husk and cut into 4 equal pieces
6 to 8 small tomatillos (about 2 cups, chopped)**
1 green or red jalapeno (or to taste; the more seeds, the hotter the dish)
1 small white onion (about 3/4 cup, chopped)
1 teaspoon olive oil
Salt, to taste
1/4 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 tablespoons roasted and salted pepitas***
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
2 teaspoons lime juice
Preheat broiler. Line a baking sheet with foil. Add the corn cob quarters, chopped tomatillos, whole jalapeno and chopped onions in the center of the foil. Drizzle with 1 teaspoon olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Toss until well coated. Turn edges of the foil up to create a ledge around the vegetables to collect the cooking juices.
Place the baking sheet as close to the broiler heat as possible. Broil until the vegetables are soft and charred all over, about 15 to 20 minutes, turning once midway through. Cool.
Cut the corn kernels off the cob and reserve half. Cut off the top of the jalapeno pepper and peel off the skin. Transfer the charred vegetables (with only half the corn) and any juices to a food processor or blender; add sugar, pepitas, cilantro and lime juice. Blend to a coarse puree. Place in a bowl, and stir in remaining corn kernels. Season with salt, to taste.
Transfer salsa to a serving bowl, and serve with tortilla chips.
**A tomatillo (toh-MAH-tee-YO) is a small green fruit encased in a paper-like husk. Used primarily in savory dishes, it is a common ingredient in Mexican and Southwestern cooking. Tomatillos can be found in Mexican markets as well as in the produce section of most major supermarkets. Prior to eating, remove the husk and rinse well to remove any stickiness.
***Pepitas are Mexican pumpkin seeds. They can be found in Mexican markets or in the bulk section of most specialty markets. Roasted sunflower seeds make a good substitute.