While tomatoes are definitely our favorite summer fruit, when it comes to veggies, we absolutely have to give the top honors to corn. Because what would a backyard barbecue be without ears of succulent, butter-slathered corn, deposited in their husks directly on the grill, or a beachside lobster boil, where you’ll invariably find the sunflower-yellow cobs nestled in pots, alongside bright red crustaceans and potatoes?
And it’s no wonder that corn continues to be so integrally associated with the American diet today. The first domestication of maize in Mesoamerica dates all the way back to 9000-8000 BC, when ancient civilizations not only adopted it as a staple food in their diet, but also expressed their reverence for corn through everyday rituals, religious ceremonies, and in the arts. Continuing that tradition, a large region of modern-day America is classified as the “Corn Belt,” with Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and Minnesota providing over 50% of all American corn crops. And although their corn is available in markets year-round (although usually found canned, frozen, or pre-peeled and plastic-wrapped), you can purchase farm-fresh, locally grown varieties during the summer, both from New Jersey and around New York State, that are far superior in flavor to those shipped from the Midwest, and a whole lot less expensive.
Chefs are similarly eager to get their hands on ear after ear of delicate, sugar-sweet corn in the summertime, so keep your eye out for delicious, corn-centric creations on their menus. The vegetable definitely takes center stage in a Chilled Corn Veloute (butter-thickened soup) at Bacchanal, crowned with an eminently seasonal assortment of Roasted Poblano Peppers, Sweet Tomatoes and Basil, and the sultry new Nomad Bar provides an ode to that New England staple, the Clam Bake, dishing out brothy bivalves flavored with Bacon, Tomatoes, and chewy kernels of Corn. At the Southern-styled Root & Bone, corn is served four ways on one plate — Grilled and spread with Cornbread Butter, and further accompanied by Giant Hominy and crunchy Popped Corn, and Ofrenda offers “Elote two Ways,” an unusual dessert of Sweet Corn Ice Cream and a Roasted Corn Cake, dolloped with Tequila Cream. The Basque tapas spot, Huertas, also explores corn’s sweet side, with their own dessert of Corn Custard, Corn Nuts and Blueberries. And in Brooklyn, the seminal River Café demonstrates how perfectly corn pairs with pasta, using it as a filling for unctuous Ravioli.
But being that corn is so simple to prepare, you’ll want to pick up a few ears of your own at the grocery store or farmers market. Look for corn whose husks are fresh and green and not dried out. They should envelope the ear and not fit too loosely around it. To examine the kernels, gently pull back on part of the husk. The kernels should be plump and tightly arranged in rows. To enjoy the optimal sweetness of fresh corn, it’s best to eat it the same day of purchase. But if you don’t intend to cook it immediately, store in an airtight container or tightly wrapped plastic bag in the refrigerator. Don’t remove its husk, since this will protect its flavor. Fresh corn also freezes well if placed in heavy-duty freezer bags. To prepare whole ears for freezing, blanch them first for five minutes. If you just want to freeze the kernels, first blanch the ears and then cut the kernels off the cob at about three-quarters of their depths. Frozen whole corn on the cob will keep for up to one year, while the kernels can be frozen for two to three months.
Corn can be cooked either with or without its husk in a variety of different ways. If using the wet heat methods of boiling or steaming, make sure not to add salt or overcook, as the corn will tend to become hard and lose its flavor. Alternatively, corn can be broiled or grilled in the husk, but you’ll want to soak it in water beforehand, to prevent scorching. Enjoy corn on the cob as is, simply seasoned with butter and salt (or lime and cheese, for a Mexican-inspired treat), or sauté kernels with green chilies and onions (bacon would work too!) for a tasty side dish. Try a cold quinoa salad, studded with corn, red peppers and kidney beans, or add corn to guacamole or salsa for a bit of added texture. Puree into a creamy soup, topped with chopped summer tomatoes and fresh herbs, or fold whole kernels into traditional chowder, along with shrimp or crab. Make a classic succotash by pairing with lima beans, and use as a topping for grilled or broiled fish, or shape into corncakes, as a landing pad for strips of charred steak. And corn makes the most delectable spoon breads and puddings, poured into a pan and baked with eggs, flour and milk.
So don’t wait until the only corn you can come by is the canned or flash-frozen stuff from the Midwest (how depressing!) — head straight to the farmers market and stock up on the scrumptious summer staple now!
146 Bowery., btwn. Broome & Grand Sts.
The Nomad Bar
1170 Broadway., at 28th St.
Root & Bone
200 E 3rd St., btwn. Avenue A & B
113 7th Ave S., at 4th St.
107 1st Ave., btwn. 6th and 7th Sts.
The River Cafe
1 Water St., btwn. Brooklyn Brg & W Cadman Plz.