What vegetable is more deeply ingrained in food culture than corn? First cultivated thousands of years ago by the ancient Aztecs and Mayans, they actually devised some of the world’s earliest calendars, as a way to keep track of their planting schedule for you guessed it… corn!
Of course, it wasn’t the buttery sweet stuff we’re largely used to now; instead, they harvested field corn, dried and ground for use in breads, puddings and cakes. By the time the 1700’s rolled around, farmers were able to significantly change their repertoire, by literally sowing the seeds for the 200+ varieties available in America today.
While that encompasses field corn, popcorn and ornamental corn, you’re most likely to come across moist, soft-shelled sweet corn, which can be simply eaten and enjoyed right off the cob. Of course, that doesn’t keep chefs from getting inventive with it; summertime menu additions of note include the White Corn with new potatoes, celery, and Australian truffles at Jean-Georges’ all-vegetable abcV, the Taleggio, Bacon and Doejang-flavored Corn at the elevated banchan specialist, Atoboy, and Fluke Ceviche lapped with leche de tigre, corn and sweet potato at the shellfish-focused Out East.
The EMP team keeps things easy breezy with Summer Chicken Salad with squash, corn and chickpeas, and Confit Pork, Roasted Corn and Chorizo at their fast-casual concept, Made Nice, while Root & Bone showcases corn’s starring role in the Southern cooking canon, via Shrimp & Grits with charred corn, Stoneground Grits with grilled corn, and Warm Cornbread dripping with maple bacon butter. But perhaps no eatery plumbs more unique depths when it comes to corn than Cosme, which has practically become synonymous with their ingenious Corn Husk dessert — lighter than air meringue flavored with charred corn husk powder and bursting with aerated fresh corn cream.
When it comes to selecting fresh corn, do the farmers a favor, and don’t peek under the husk. You should be able to discern a good ear if its tassels are brown and sticky to the touch (if they’re black or dry, it’s too old). Feel the corn through the husk to check for even, plump kernels… and if you must, peel the top of the leaves back just slightly, to make sure the tips of the ears are filled out. If they are, you’re almost certain to have snagged an ideal score of corn.
While it’s best within 24 hours of purchasing (as those sugars quickly transform to starch), you can refrigerate corn, still tightly wrapped in its husks, for up to three days. Which means the race is on the use it before you lose it — and if your corn is truly fresh, you can’t go wrong with ears simply boiled, grilled or steamed.
You don’t even need to cook it; just slice off the kernels and pop them into salad with tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar, and feta cheese. Try a barbecue-friendly casserole, thickened with cream and cornmeal, and finished with cheddar, scallions and bacon, or foil and parchment-wrapped packets of fish or shrimp with hunks of corn, which can be thrown directly on the grill.
Toss with avocado for a super-fresh salsa, simmer, strain and cool into a delightful chilled bisque, toss with flour and fry into fritters, or even turn into ice cream, showcasing corn’s natural sugars in an unexpected way. And then there’s our favorite corn preparation, Mexican elote, where whole, grilled cobs are slathered in mayo, rolled in cotija cheese, and finished with hot pepper and a refreshing spritz of lime.
Centuries later, corn remains the very essence of summer and one of America’s most beloved eats.
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