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Glorious corn

Thursday, June 29, 2000

By Elaine Light

It's the All-American food, the very symbol of summer, those butter-dripping ears of sweet corn that define picnics, clambakes, barbecues and suppers as long as the season lasts.

How to cook
perfect corn

Boil it

Bring a large pot of water to a vigorous boil over high heat. (Don't add salt; it toughens corn.) Cook in batches, shucked and with the silk removed, adding a few ears at a time, so the water continues boiling. For fresh young corn, cook only 30 seconds -- just long enough to heat the corn through; boil more mature corn for up to 3 minutes.

Oven-roast it

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Peel back corn husks, leaving them attached at the base of the ear, then remove and discard silk. Smear softened butter on each ear, then rewrap corn with husks. Pile corn in a roasting pan, cover loosely with aluminum foil, and roast for 8 to 10 minutes.

Grill it

Soak corn in the husks in cold water for a few hours before grilling. This lets the corn steam as it grills, making it moister, but it is not necessary. To grill corn, let a bed of coals burn down until glowing and covered with ash. Place corn on grill and cook, turning several times with long-handled tongs. Cook shucked corn for 3 to 4 minutes, corn in husks for 6 to 8.


Good if you are doing small amounts. Individually wrap one or two ears of husked corn in waxed paper or place several ears in a covered dish with 2 to 3 tablespoons of water. Cook wrapped corn 3 to 6 minutes; in a dish, 5 to 7 minutes.

Saveur Magazine

Farm sources for fresh-picked corn


If there is a complaint about corn, it is that the season is never long enough -- about two months from mid- or late July to frost. Many Western Pennsylvania farmers, though, start their crops under plastic so they have corn ready to pick by the Fourth of July.

The Indians greeted Columbus with corn when he touched the shore of what is now Cuba on Nov. 4, 1492. In a translation of his journal, which was written the next day, he noted, "There was a great deal of tilled land sowed with a sort of beans and sort of grain they called 'Mahiz' which was well tasted, baked or dried or made into flour."

The early settlers would have starved without corn because the grains they brought with them failed to grow in a hostile climate. It got its name, corn, from the Europeans, who called any grain corn.

Corn is a species of grass believed to have developed more than 7,000 years ago in Central America. Its botanical name is Zea Mais and it is one of the most important cereal crops in the world.

Only about 10 percent of the $2 billion yearly corn crop is the sweet corn Americans prize and love. The rest is field corn used for animal feed and thousands of food and other products ranging from latex paint and toothpaste to core binders for the molding of iron, steel and aluminum.

Fresh corn on the cob is a purely American -- North, South and Central -- passion. When corn was introduced to Europeans, at first they first fed it to the animals, creating a strange prejudice that lasts to this day. You will not find corn recipes in Escoffier.

My grandmother refused to touch it, saying they fed it to the pigs in Europe.

Monique Atkin, a native of France, confesses she lived in Pittsburgh 10 years before she was persuaded to taste fresh corn. "Now I can't get enough of it," she says, "but I still can't talk my sister into tasting it when she comes to visit."

The Italians accepted cornmeal, which they call polenta, and the Hungarians also eat cornmeal as mamaglia. Otherwise, Europeans still shun corn as animal fodder.

But for Americans, corn on the cob is an eagerly awaited summer treat, described by one writer as "Eating the summer sunlight."

Special soil needs

If there is a downside to enjoying corn on the cob, it's the fact that the sugar in corn begins to turn to starch the instant it is cut from the stalk. The old rule said to put the water on to boil before you picked the corn. That only worked if you owned or lived next to a cornfield.

I was lucky. As a child, I lived in a small Ohio town that was next to a farm. I remember my mother setting the water to boil while my father crossed the road to buy the corn from the farmer.

I spent my married life in Punxsutawney, a town surrounded by farmland with farmers who trucked their corn into town every day.

One such farmer is Shirley Wright, who has been growing strawberries and corn most of her life. The daughter of a farmer, she married farmer Ivan Wright, now 70, who has just survived a triple heart bypass. They raise sweet corn on 16 acres of a 250-acre spread called Pine Valley Farms in Rochester Mills, seven miles south of Punxsutawney. The rest is planted in hay they sell to eastern markets.

The Wrights still harvest their corn by hand, helped by son Jeff, 40, who is taking over the farm, and his wife, Jenny. The grandchildren, Kegan, 11, and Jenna, 8, pitch in to ferry the heavy burlap sacks of corn to the truck for the trip to town.

"I get up at 6 a.m. and pick corn until 8 or 8:30 a.m.," Mrs.Wright says. "I load the truck and drive into town. I try to be there from 10 a.m to 4 p.m. but I'm 64 and it gets harder all the time.

"It is almost impossible to get farm help . . . " her voice trails off as she contemplates the future.

Corn requires special soil, and the Wrights send soil samples to Penn State for analysis every year before planting. This year's corn was planted in April, earlier than usual because of the warm winter.

"We took a chance," she explains, "because we have had frost as late as June 9, but you have to take a chance if you want early corn."

On the other hand, the warm winter prevented frost from killing insect grubs, and the Wrights fear they will have to do a lot of spraying.

Many new varieties

Newer varieties of sugar-enhanced corn have given corn lovers a little more time between pot and field, but the best corn is still the freshest.

Look for bright green husks and light colored corn silk. It has a fresh corn smell and if you dare prick a kernel it will spurt milky juice. If you do want to keep it a day or two, refrigerate it in the husk.

With Pittsburgh's abundance of farmers' markets and farm stands it is possible to get one's fill of freshly picked corn. Most out-of-season and supermarket corn comes from Florida.

There are many varieties of sweet corn, some yellow, some bi-color and some white. Mrs. Wright says the most popular is the sugar-enhanced bicolor that replaced the smaller corn known as sugar and butter. That is all they raise, planting it at various intervals to insure a supply until frost.

Pete Ferretti, professor of vegetable crops at Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, says Pennsylvania's temperate climate is perfect for growing sweet corn. Pennsylvania ranks fourth nationally in sweet corn production.

Some farmers claim you can actually hear corn growing on hot nights and Shirley Wright says, "It's true. You can hear it crackle!"

Freeze that freshness

One way to preserve the flavor of fresh corn is to freeze it. An easy way is to always buy more than you plan to eat. If I am going to eat two ears, I buy six. The four I plan to freeze are boiled about 2 minutes and then chilled in ice water. When it's drained, holding the cob vertically, pointed tip down, I cut the kernels with a sharp knife, then use the back of the knife to squeeze out the milky juices. I fill about two plastic bags and freeze.

That way, during the course of a corn season, I amass an amazing amount of corn without knocking myself out doing it. Of course you can buy dozens of corn and do it all in a day. Either way, you will have wonderful fresh-tasting corn that bears no relation to the commercial product.

You can also have variety from the first yellows, which take about 73 days to mature, to the bi-colors, which take 72 to 84 days, to the great whites, such as Silver Queen, which requires 92 days.

According to Ferretti, Silver Queen has "been the Cadillac of sweet corn for about 30 years" but is being eclipsed by newer varieties such as Silver King, Argent and Silverado.

Vegetable compatibility

Shirley Wright has a different recipe, which is very good. She also strips the corn and corn scrapings. For 8 quarts of corn kernels, about 3 dozen, she adds 1/4 cup sugar, and 1 cup of water in large kettle. She heats this over low heat -- "Don't cook it, heat it," she admonishes -- for 20 minutes. She then packs it in freezer bags.

How long you cook corn is a matter of taste, anywhere from 2 minutes to 5. You can also microwave it (not practical for more than 4 ears), grill it, bake it or use in combination with virtually any other summer vegetables.

The Indians always grew corn with squash and beans and served them together. They taught the early settlers how to make succotash, which combined two of their three main crops, corn and beans.

A meal consisting of fresh corn on the cob, red ripe tomatoes anointed with fresh basil and olive oil, with or without fried chicken, a hamburger, hot dog or steak, and a fresh peach or berry dessert is a meal the greatest chef cannot improve.

Blanche McManus, head librarian at the Squirrel Hill branch of Carnegie Library, says she and her husband have a Sunday routine during corn season.

"After church," she says, "we drive out to Trax Farms and buy a dozen and a half of corn. We go home, put the water on, cook the corn and that is our dinner. I can eat five ears and my husband can eat six or seven. We never tire of it."

Good as corn on the cob is, it is wonderful in corn puddings, corn fritters and corn soups. Corn soup and corn relish are staples of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking.

Recipes for corn breads, or virtually anything else with cornmeal, is enhanced by the addition of fresh kernels. Corn salsas often accompany fish entrees in trendy restaurants. Corn is good raw in salads, often teamed with black or kidney beans, black and red peppers and a simple vinaigrette dressing.

A vast fan club

Corn is subject to a variety of pests, including corn borers and Japanese beetles, not to mention groundhogs, which like it as well as humans do. In fact, corn is responsible for the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.

It was in the August cornfields that a group of local citizens gathered to picnic and roast the groundhogs (tastes like chicken) that were eating the farmers' corn. A local reporter christened the group "The Groundhog Club" and history was made.

That was 106 years ago. Now they toast rather than roast the groundhog, but they still have an annual picnic in addition to the Groundhog Day festivities each Feb. 2.

We asked Mrs. Wright if she had ever seen a black corn fungus, and she grimaced and said she had -- "lots of it." I told her it was Huitlacoche, much prized in Mexico, and now actually being grown for use in some fashionable restaurants in the United States. It has a mushroom like flavor and is used in soups, and sauces.

She expressed surprise but did not indicate she planned to try it any time soon.

Elaine Light is a free-lance food writer, who lives Uptown.

Related Recipes:

Corn Fritters I
Corn Fritters II
Southern Corn Chowder
Old Fashioned Corn Relish
Nancy's Corn Pudding
Corn Saute
Roasted Corn Salsa

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