When a city is home to an oversized cement field of corn, it’s safe to assume that said city takes its corn seriously. Cow tipping stereotypes aside, Columbus is a Midwest city deeply rooted in agriculture. We may have grown up in recent years– with rising status as a fashion capital, nationally renowned chefs and a thriving artist’s community– but we are who we are. And there’s no shame in that. Corn on the cob is as American– as Midwestern– as it gets. And we’re home to some of the finest– you just need to know where to look.
As we round the corner into summer, large wooden crates start popping up at markets, overflowing with glistening green cobs of fresh corn. Pick-ups appear at roadsides, proudly displaying “Yellow, Bi-Color, Silver Queen” on handwritten signs, their truck beds filled to the brim. The sweetest, corn-iest cobs are in season mid-July through early September– anything available in stores before or after that has usually been shipped in from Florida or Mexico. In an era when you can buy asparagus in the dead of winter and tomatoes year round, it’s easy to overlook seasonality in choosing your produce. Corn is best when eaten within 24 hours of being picked– after that, the naturally occurring sugars start turning to starch and all that corn-y texture and flavor goes out the window, along with all the nutrition as well.
The locavore and health-conscious among us might stay away from corn– it’s a minefield of Monsanto, GMOs, high-fructose corn syrup, pesticides and more. It’s a sad state of affairs when it feels like you’re making a political statement or flirting with cancer when biting into a vegetable. In this age of media hype scare tactics, a simple ear of corn can be ludicrously intimidating. But armed with the right information and good questions, there is no reason to avoid this staple of summer cookouts.
First, look for USDA certified organic corn – not only are you avoiding any nasty pesticides, but GMOs are forbidden by organic standards. Acquiring the USDA certified stamp of approval can be cost prohibited from many small farmers, especially ones that have a table set up at the local farmer’s market. Have no fear: just ask. If it’s not marked, or if the farm isn’t certified, ask if the farmer if they plant GMO modified corn. Next, ask when the corn was picked and go by the “one day rule.” If the farmer is worth their salt, their corn will have been picked the night before or early that morning.
When choosing ears of corn, pull back the husks slightly to expose the top of the ear– you should find tightly packed kernels, plump yet firm to the touch, and glossy, pale yellow silks. Husks should be an attractive grass-green, and tightly wrapped around the ear.
Baker’s dozen home and on your kitchen counter, it’s time to dig in. Super fresh corn can be enjoyed raw, right off the cob, or cut into a salad. If you prefer yours hot and buttery, you can go a number of routes: boiled, roasted or grilled. Rule of thumb for perfected boiled corn? Don’t overdo it. If you err on the side of caution and take those babies out of the water just in time, they’ll retain their sweetness and crisp texture. For a tried and true method, drop your shucked ears into already boiling, unsalted water for 4-7 minutes and have your mini corncob forks on standby.
Headed for the grill? Pull the husks down from the ears without completely removing them, clean off any silks with a veggie brush, and wrap the ears back into their husks. After soaking the ears in water for 10 minutes, lay directly onto the grill grate, rotating over the span of 15-20 minutes. If you want to skip the soak time, roasting is the way to go. Take ears completely cleaned of husk and silks, brush with melted butter and salt, wrap in foil and place onto the grill for 15-20 minutes, rotating occasionally.
If you plan on eating corn all summer long (as you should), it’s nice to shake things up a bit. Break out some fresh herbs and make a compound butter– use a fork to mix chopped herbs like basil and tarragon into salted butter, with red chili flakes and freshly cracked black pepper, and put that on the table for guests. Consider cutting the corn off the cob, and tossing with crisp pieces of bacon, cherry tomatoes, and a simple dressing of olive oil, apple cider vinegar and salt and pepper for a fresh salad. Or, try the below recipe for Mexican Street Corn– mayonnaise on corn may sound hedonistic… and it is, deliciously so. Any direction will lead you toward a mouthful of sweet summertime– but hurry, come late September, those roadside stands will be packed up and won’t be back for another 10 months.
While fresh corn needs nothing—its juicy sweetness is a high note of summer flavor—if you eat a lot of it over the course of the season; however, ya might want to change up the flavors. Beyond the compound butters listed above, here are a few more ideas for post-grilling flavor journeys.
Mix equal parts mayonnaise and limejuice. Toss in some salt and pepper to taste. Slather cobs with this mixture, and put out a bowl of Cojito cheese and a shaker of chili powder so diners can control the heat.
Mix equal parts mayonnaise and Korean chili paste. Add lemon juice to taste as well as chopped cilantro and sliced scallions. Either toss the grilled and husked cobs in the mixture—you will need a pretty big bowl—or use it like butter and smear it on.
Make a basic basil vinaigrette: In a blender, place 2 cups packed stemmed basil leaves, one garlic clove, one tablespoon chopped onion, 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, and blend. While the blender is going, slowly pour in ½ cup olive oil until blended and a little thick. Taste for seasoning. Voila! Vinaigrette! Pour or brush over grilled corn and the sprinkle liberally with fresh Parmesan cheese.