Fresh, sweet corn is highlight of summer

July 27, 2018

Despite the rainy drizzle, Shields Elementary School parking lot was filled with shoppers browsing the Historic Lewes Farmers Market last week. Out of consideration for the turf at George H.P. Smith Park (where they usually set up the vendors' tents), the market moves to the paved parking lot when rain is predicted.

No one seemed troubled by the weather and we were able to find the items on our list, most importantly, corn on the cob. We looked over the various options and selected several ears from Ficner's Farm. The husks were green, moist and tightly sealed, topped with soft, feathery silk - all sure signs this corn had just been picked.

Fresh sweet corn is always one of the highlights of summer, but the corn we enjoy today is quite different from what our ancestors ate and completely unlike the plant from which corn evolved. Since corn does not grow in the wild anywhere in the world, it took the combined work of botanists, geneticists and archeologists to confirm that corn (also called maize) was cultivated from teosinte.

Teosinte is a wild grass originally domesticated by the indigenous people of central Mexico close to 10,000 years ago. The part of the grain that could correspond to an "ear" does not at all resemble a cob of corn. It has a thin pod of less than a dozen kernels, each inside a nut-hard shell. Only through selective cultivation were growers able to create strains of highly edible corn with more rows of exposed kernels on larger cobs.

Corn is one of the foods truly native to the Americas, brought back to Europe by early explorers and now a familiar food across the world. Originally, the type of corn people ate is what we now call "field corn." Due to the hard shell on the kernels, this was not eaten fresh, but cooked into cakes, breads and puddings or dried and ground into flour. It's also the type of corn used as animal feed.

Two varieties of field corn are grown today: dent corn (named for the shape it develops when mature) and flint corn, which grows well in cooler climates. Another hard-shelled corn variety is our favorite movie-time snack: popcorn, which explodes when heated, shattering its shell to reveal fluffy white puffs.

Sweet corn, which began to appear in the mid-1700s, is soft-shelled, juicy and tender. There are over 200 different varieties, ranging in color from white to yellow to bi-colored kernels. Producing sweet-tasting corn requires close attention to the weather once the ears are pollinated. Kernels develop faster when it's hot and water is plentiful; cooler or dryer conditions will delay the harvest.

The ideal time to pick the corn is just as the new kernels have formed and are full of liquid, a period known as the "milk" stage. If left on the stalk, that liquid will begin to convert into starch, with the kernels becoming denser and losing their sweet taste. If left on the stalk or collected for winter storage, sweet corn kernels will become transparent and shriveled.

While much of today's field corn crop finds its way into ethanol additives for gasoline or biodegradable paper products, there remains a loyal following of fans who relish the flavor and texture of sweet summer corn. Whether white or yellow, fresh-picked corn is a lovely addition to many dishes. I've included recipes for the muffins in the photo, a light summer salad and creamed corn simmered in a skillet.

Corn & Cheddar Muffins

1 1/4 C cornmeal
3/4 C flour
1 T sugar
2 1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
3 T butter
1 C milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 C grated cheddar cheese
kernels from 2 ears of corn

Preheat oven to 425 F. Coat the inside of a 12-cup muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray or place paper liners in each cup; set aside. Combine the dry ingredients in the center of a large mixing bowl. Place the butter in a glass bowl and microwave for 1 minute to melt. Whisk milk into the melted butter, then add eggs one at a time, whisking until smooth. Scatter the cheese and corn kernels in the bowl over the dry ingredients. Pour in the milk mixture and mix together with a few rapid strokes; do not overmix. Transfer the batter into the prepared muffin tin. Bake until lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Serve immediately; store any leftovers in an airtight container. Yield: 12 muffins.

Corn & Tomato Salad

3 ears of fresh corn
1 pint cherry tomatoes
shredded basil leaves
2 T olive oil
1 T Balsamic vinegar
1 T lemon juice
salt & pepper, to taste

Remove and discard the corn husks; carefully remove any silk strands clinging to the kernels. Holding the ear of corn upright in a large bowl, strip the kernels with a sharp knife. Transfer corn to a serving bowl. Halve the tomatoes and add to the serving bowl along with the basil. In a glass measuring cup, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar and lemon juice. Pour dressing over the corn mixture and toss to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper; garnish with additional basil. Yield: 4 servings. Note: add chunks of feta cheese or small mozzarella balls, if desired.

Skillet Creamed Corn

6 ears of fresh corn
3 T flour
2 t sugar
1 t salt
1/2 t white pepper
1 1/4 C water
3 T butter
snipped chives

Remove and discard the corn husks; carefully remove any silk strands clinging to the kernels. Holding the ear of corn upright in a large bowl, strip the kernels with a sharp knife. Scrape the corn cob with a spoon to extract any remaining liquid; set aside. In a large measuring cup, combine flour, sugar, salt and pepper. Pour in water and whisk until smooth. Pour flour mixture over corn kernels and stir to combine. Melt butter in a large, deep skillet over medium-low. Gently add corn mixture; simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Garnish with snipped chives. Yield: 6 servings.