For me there is no greater touchstone of summer than a mountain of local corn on display, and I find myself drawn to it no matter my retail mission. Invariably, I join other shoppers in the ritual where each of us acts as though we alone know what it takes to choose the most succulent ears.
Runts get thrown back onto the pile. Fat, bright ears pass on to the next level of inspection in which enough of the husk is pulled back to reveal whether or not the cob and kernels are well formed and blemish-free. (Some experts suggest smelling the exposed cob,which should have an aroma that is more corny than grassy green.)
The final test: plunging the tip of a key into a kernel to make sure its liquid is sweet and white, with the consistency of nonfat milk.
As I walk away with my bag of well-vetted specimens, the thought always passes through my mind how happy my partner will be to have corn on the cob for dinner. His favorite. The next thought is, what else can I do with it? Because of its dual personalities as a vegetable and a grain with sweet and savory properties, corn is a chef’s dream. That’s why it shows up on every part of restaurant menus, soup to dessert.
I’ve done corn cakes (that was 2o years ago; “Johnnycakes” are a trending “new” dish in hip restaurants today), corn relishes, chowders, soups. I’ve fried corn, sauteed it and baked it. I’ve rolled a roasted carrot covered with herbed goat cheese in it to resemble corn-on-the-cob.
Yet chefs still manage to devise fresh approaches. At Fiola in Penn Quarter, Fabio Trabocchi makes a lush corn gazpacho and pairs it with delicate Maryland blue crabmeat, while his pastry chef, Tom Wellings, churns silken corn ice cream.
With some of my last column’s inspiration — the work of Momofuku pastry chef Christina Tosi — still in my head, I resolved to make a corn milk less sweet than hers and more corn intense. Instead of using Cap’n Crunch cereal, as Tosi did, I made a puree of kernels cut from a plump, fresh ear; freeze-dried corn (very intense; Tosi uses it for chewy corn cookies); Corn Pops cereal, which is oddly not as sweet as you’d think; and warmed evaporated milk, for its subtle caramel flavor. Then I steeped the puree in cold milk for an hour and strained it. Rather simple, really.
What resulted was a slightly sweet, thick but fairly neutral corn-centric liquid. That there was raw corn in it would reduce its shelf life to a couple of days, I discovered.
Here’s how I cut kernels off the cob, by the way: I place a cob flat on a cutting board and use a bread knife to cut the kernels from each side, treating the ear like a rectangular cube. Then I go back and shave the corners to get any missed kernels .
The first idea I had in mind for the milk was corn pudding for dessert. For extra texture and eye appeal, I thought to caramelize sugar, add fresh corn to it and turn it out on a baking sheet to see whether I could break it into brittle for layering.
But the experiment fizzled. The pudding was stodgy; the caramel was watery, not brittle, thanks to weeping corn.
However, the effort begat corn caramel custards. I lined custard cups with caramel and used my corn milk infusion for the delicate custard base. A garnish of light, crunchy, whole freeze-dried corn kernels on the inverted final product provided extra corn zing.
A note on making caramel: Forget about adding water to sugar and then assiduously brushing down crystals formed on the side of the pan while the syrup cooks, as most cookbooks suggest. The chef’s way is to use a heavy-bottomed saucepan, preferably copper, spread sugar evenly in the bottom of it and then plunk the pan on high heat, not moving it around until about half the sugar has turned first into a clear syrup and then an amber one. The hot caramel will then, with a light stir, immediately melt any remaining white crystals.
The custard base resembled eggnog, which put me in a spiked-beverage frame of mind. I combined my corn milk concoction, bourbon and pulverized freeze-dried corn in a cocktail shaker, shook it up with ice and strained it into a martini glass. More corn powder floating on top added the finishing touch to my easy summer cocktail. The ice thins down the milk so the cocktail isn’t cloying or syrupy. I’d drink it as a bar cocktail rather than before a meal, but instead of dessert after a meal.
Corn bread was on my to-do list, because I wanted to fine-tune a recipe I had come up with on the fly for a Memorial Day gathering. I generally use the grocery store meal we’re all used to, but the coarser meal I used from the Burwell Morgan Mill in Millwood, Va., made for cornier cornbread.
Reaching for the meal, I accidentally grabbed a bag of buckwheat flour I had bought at the Carriage House Market in Hanover, Pa. It was for gifting but never left my house. Why not? I thought. It would add a nutty flavor dimension plus texture and color contrast from specks of dark hull in the flour.
When fresh corn is available, I like to add it to corn bread. It offers a contrasting texture and a tolerable touch of sweetness while still complying with my firm interdiction against sugar in corn bread. (If I wanted cake, I’d bake one.) Lots of minced onion and chopped jalapeno helped maintain a savory edge. Adding fat to the batter as well as to the bottom of the skillet is key for moist corn bread with a crisp edge.
Butter or bacon fat is usually my go-to fat for corn bread, but I subbed turkey fat for butter. I figured its out-of-season Thanksgivingness would lend distinction. Besides, there it was in the freezer, so in it went. It turns out that the turkey fat’s richness and flavor surpassed those of butter, so freeze those drippings the next time you roast a turkey.
Having bought terrific, juicy white corn from my local Giant and some underwhelming bicolor corn at a farmers market, I tracked down the former, which came from Vincent Farms, a fifth-generation family-owned farm in Lewes, Del. The Vincent Farms variety was indeed a sweeter one.
In sweetness, not all corn varieties are created equal, of course. That is something to bear in mind when you’re making a savory salad or relish (see related story).
The farmers market trip filled in the rest of what I needed for my salad: quickly blanched kernels of bicolor corn, which adds visual interest; tender haricots verts, for color and crunch; summer staples of red pepper and basil. To dress it with sophistication, I composed a vinaigrette of walnut oil, champagne vinegar, shallot and Dijon mustard.
Hazelnut and walnut oils are a bit of an investment, but worth it. Their concentrated woody notes and richness bring personality to vegetables that on their own can be drab. I used no added sugar, thanks to the corn. Taste before you dress the salad, as its sweetness could mean having to bump up the acid in the vinaigrette. On top of the salad, a medallion of FireFly Farms Allegheny Chevre, a fresh goat’s-milk cheese, elevated the dish from supporting player to first-course star.
My corn gratin side dish started out as something else entirely. I noticed elote popping up on menus around Washington (Bandolero, El Chucho) and set out to tweak that Mexican street food of grilled corn slathered with mayonnaise, sprinkled with chili powder and cotija cheese and spritzed with a squeeze of lime.
Efforts to bring down the fat quotient by substituting basil or cilantro pesto for the mayo only led me to the conclusion that I was masking the corn — and that I didn’t really want to stand over hot charcoals on a day likely to exceed 100 degrees. So I baked a quick white-corn gratin using store-bought pesto. The oil in the pesto performed as I’d expected: It blended with the Wondra flour to form a roux that thickened the low-fat milk into a sauce. The basil harmonized impeccably with the corn’s sweetness. The dish had a lightly creamy consistency, with a bit of crunch on top from crushed cornflakes and a welcome bonus of gooey Gruyere cheese.
When I served the gratin, I fretted that with basically only six ingredients in it, something might be missing. But when my audience of one went back for more, I resolved to stick with less.
Hagedorn’s column appears monthly.