One Ingredient: Sweet Corn
Photo by Michael Piazza / Styled by Catrine Kelty
The New England sweet corn harvest—like that of tomatoes—really spans two seasons, starting late in the summer and ending mid-fall, right around the first frost. Every year at the beginning of August, when the first ears of local sweet corn appear at farmers markets and farmstands, the whole region stands up and cheers. We’ve been waiting for this for months, a whole year even, so mid-summer marks a collective pig-out on corn, freshly picked and boiled ever-so-briefly, served dripping with butter and salt. At my family’s table, corn-on-the-cob even has its own designated stick of butter—salted and cold from the fridge—and everyone is encouraged to roll their own ear over it, coating every kernel with buttery goodness. I am certain we are not alone in this fairly gluttonous practice, since it’s just the best—and most simple—way to eat local sweet corn.
It used to be said that you’d have to put the water on to boil before the corn was even picked—that’s how quickly the sugars would convert to starch and render the corn unpleasant to eat. But modern farmers have solved that problem by developing varieties that hold their sweetness for days after picking, with evocative names like Silver Queen, Sugar Buns, Delectable and Luscious. Some of these hybridized varieties are so super-sweet now that a squeeze of lemon or a splash of vinegar is a welcome balance to the sugar, though longer-lasting sweetness does have many benefits: Buying a dozen on a Thursday no longer runs you the risk of tough, chewy, pasty corn at Saturday’s dinner, and these varieties are perfect for canning and preserving to extend their season.
In mid-fall, the corn season still well underway, I buy a few dozen ears to process and save for the winter, when the sunny yellow of local corn will brighten a cold day’s risotto or soup, or enliven a simple cornmeal bread. Besides being delicious in jarred relishes, pickles and chutneys, corn also freezes very well; strip kernels from the cobs and seal in zip-top bags—or vacuum-pack them to reduce freezer burn—and all it’ll need is a quick thaw on the counter and it’s ready to use. You can even freeze the stripped cobs in a separate bag; boiled for 30 minutes with some onion and carrot, they make excellent stock, a must for corn-rich soups and stews.
In fact, a bag of corn in the freezer at my house means that a quick, summery chowder is easily made in the dead of winter: I crisp up some bacon, add a chopped onion, some garlic and the thawed corn with a bit of fresh thyme, then cover with corn stock or chicken broth. I bring it to a simmer, add a few littleneck clams, wait for the clams to open, then serve it with crusty bread and a big salad. I cannot imagine a meal more evocative of August when it’s snowing outside.
There are so many ways to enjoy fresh sweet corn both in season and afterwards, but I wanted to add some new recipes to my usual repertoire this year. If you look at restaurant menus in early fall, they’re filled to the brim with corn. It’s a side dish, a main course, even dessert! So I asked five local chefs for their favorite ways to prepare corn and got some incredible additions to my recipe box: two very different but equally delicious soups, both of which could easily be made in large quantity and frozen; a custard, served chilled in warm weather or hot in winter; a roasted corn polenta to serve with grilled steak; and a sweet corn cake, the perfect accompaniment to the last of this season’s blueberries. I’m going to need to freeze a few more dozen ears this year!
This story appeared in the Fall 2015 issue.