Sunday, August 26, 2007

August Corn: Phase I, Corn Off the Cob

Here in Rhode Island, we’re as corny in August as that Midwest state of Broadway fame. Everywhere you look, the corn’s gone from knee-high to sky high, and with the lengthening season has come variety, lots of it. For many people, the corn of late August brings their favorite variety of white corn, the most popular being Silver Queen, possibly because it is a “standard” or traditional variety, neither a sugar-enhanced nor supersweet, that was once widely available, and is what they know. But there are loads of other white corns, too, and in the corn world, Silver Queen isn’t really queen any more. Some farmers grow it because people ask for it; some, I hear, tell people it’s Silver Queen when it’s not; and others don’t grow it at all, choosing to grow varieties such as Argent, Silver King, Lancelot, Camelot, Treasure, Silverado, and many more. There have even been a few taste tests where Silver Queen comes in far down the list. Me, I tend to be partial to the bi-coloreds, including some early varieties like Temptation.

What’s great about living in a corn-growing area is that you get to sample a good dozen or so varieties over the course of a summer. And because farmers like to mix it up and try new ones, keeping stand-bys and experimenting at the margin with the growing and market qualities of others, over the course of a few years you may get to sample 20 or more. My old neighbor Coll Walker, whose corn is legendary around here, is always trying new ones, looking for the right balance of growability and customer preferences. Lancelot, which I liked when he planted it some years back, was impossible in our coastal climate, where a storm would knock it flat, cutting yields in half and rendering the rest difficult to pick. Coll also tries to provide the longest season possible to the local corn-obsessed, requiring staggered plantings of numerous varieties. So we never know what we’ll find, and the changes bring a mild kind of excitement, as people gather ‘round the cart and baskets to see and exclaim over what’s on offer. Last week it was Montauk (bicolor) and Mattapoissett (white). This week it’s Providence (appropriately for this post on Rhode Island corn, also a bicolor) and Silver King (white).

The dark cloud attached to the Silver King lining is, of course, that all this corny bounty means the end of summer. Soon it, and the corn, will be gone. It’s time to buy lots and lots of peak-perfection corn, enjoy it fresh, and stockpile it and its essence for winter. By all means eat some on the cob, grilled or coddled or however you like it, as you have all summer, but consider moving into off-the-cob mode so you can kill two birds with one stone. You can enjoy your fresh corn kernels sautéed with butter and cream (truth be told, my favorite way to eat corn) or in fresh salsas, corn fritters, corny cornbread, and so on, and at the same time preserve the taste of summer corn by freezing some for your Thanksgiving succotash (a must in my family), making corn relish or jelly, and most important of all, making corn stock from the fresh cobs. How to make corn stock, and the recipe for corn risotto promised in May, will be the subject of my next post.

To cut corn off the cob: Strip corn and hold firmly, tip up, in a shallow dish such as a large pie pate or gratin pan. With a thin, sharp paring knife (I like my beak parer for this), place the blade behind the top kernels and cut the corn in a downward motion close to the cob, turning the ears as necessary. Do not scrape the ears for this, as you want the corn milk for the stock and you want your relish to be as clear as possible.

To freeze corn: There are several ways to freeze corn, but here is what has been most successful for me. Cut corn from cobs as above. Blanch in boiling water for 1-2 minutes only, drain, rinse in very cold water, and drain well again. Spread it out on a towel and pat as dry as possible. Place in measured portions (2 or 4 cups) into doubled zip-lock bags and freeze. I find this works better than blanching on the cob first before cutting the corn off, and I do not recommend freezing corn, either raw or blanched, on the cob. The combination of this corn with another sweet, tender vegetable preserved at its peak, your own home-frozen lima beans, simmered lightly together in butter with salt and pepper, is a true Thanksgiving treat.

To make creamy sautéed corn: Over medium-low heat, melt two tablespoons of unsalted butter, and add the corn from four ears. Toss it around and cook it 2 or 3 minutes, taking care that it doesn’t brown. Pour in a little very fresh heavy cream, about ¼ cup, and cook at a bubbly simmer. When the cream is nearly absorbed, add another ¼ cup cream, repeating this process until the corn is just tender; taste as you go. The cooking will take about 15 minutes; it will not be overdone. Season with about a ½ teaspoon of coarse salt, a twist of the nutmeg mill, and several twists of the pepper mill. Remove from the stove, stir in another teaspoon of butter, and serve.

With so much fresh corn off the cob, you might want to make some corn relish, a versatile garnish, particularly for anything pig-related, from ham and pork roast to hot dogs and sausages. It’s also nice with cheeses, and I find it makes a very popular, old-fashioned sort of appetizer, as described below. Another very old-fashioned way to eat it is simply as a sandwich, between two slices of buttered homemade white bread, with or without a few slices of this month’s glorious tomatoes.

Little Compton Corn Relish

In the ethos of small-batch preserving, this makes about 4 pints. Use any corn variety or mixture. You can have a mix of red and green pepper, which is more traditional, but I like red only. Try to chop all the vegetables to roughly the size of the corn kernels if you can, and make sure your spices are very fresh. A relish should be light and loose, not viscous and gloppy. Many modern recipes call for the addition of a gelling agent, which may make your product too heavy. You can instead add a little cornstarch to the sugar-vinegar syrup if it is not as thick as you like.

8 cups corn off the cob (about 12 ears)
1 ½ cups sugar
¼ cup firmly packed brown sugar (see Note)
1 ½ cups chopped onion
1 ½ cups red pepper, seeded, de-ribbed, and chopped
2 tea coarse salt
1 ½ cups white vinegar
2 tea prepared Dijon mustard
½ tea turmeric
2 tea yellow mustard seed
2 tea celery seed
1/8-1/4 tea crushed hot red pepper (optional)
2 tea cornstarch, stirred into some of the relish liquid (optional)

Put everything together into a large open pan; bring slowly to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer it for 15 minutes. Turn up the heat and boil gently for another 5 minutes or so to reduce the liquid; if you wish, remove a little of it and stir it into the cornstarch, then stir this back into the relish, cooking another few minutes, no more than 20-25 minutes total. Taste as you go; your vegetables should be tender but still crisp. Ladle into clean hot jars and seal.

Note: You could leave the brown sugar out, or reduce the white sugar to 1 ¼ cup and keep the brown, which adds a bit of depth. I intentionally make my relish a tad on the sweet side because I invariably serve it with fairly intense sour, salty, or smokey flavors where a little extra sweetness creates just the right balance.

Ruffled Chips with Seasoned Cheese, Corn Relish, and Pickles

I almost never buy potato chips, and had not bought the ridged kind in my whole life, so I’m not sure why I was possessed to serve this relish in this particular way. But I was, went out and bought the ridged chips, and here it is. Everyone loves it, and I must say the combination of tastes is just right. It’s something my Pennsylvania German grandmother might have made.

3 oz cream cheese, softened
3 oz fresh mild goat cheese, such as Montrachet, softened
1 ½ T finely minced shallot
¼ tea finely minced garlic, or 1 tiny clove
1 T mixed chopped herbs, such as thyme, parsley, and oregano
small wedge of lemon
salt and pepper

Ridged chips

Thinly sliced sour/dill pickles of any kind

Blend the cheeses and seasonings; squeeze the lemon over, mix again and let stand for an hour. With the ridged chips, scoop up a little cheese and corn relish, and eat accompanied by the pickles.

No comments: