Corn is king in summer. Even confirmed vegetable haters drool over fresh sweet corn slathered with butter, salt and pepper. It’s a beloved seasonal past time—what truffles are to the French and mussels to the Belgians. Although European friends may scoff at our passion and say that corn is fit for livestock only, the truth is that corn, the way Americans love it, won’t be found in the Old World. It’s a New World vegetable—Native American at that.
Colorado corn can be traced to the ancient Anasazi who farmed at Mesa Verde. As one of the “three sisters” of agriculture, including squash and beans, corn served as a staple food. The Anasazi might not recognize our present day sweet corn tucked into the beds of trucks rumbling through towns. Still, Olathe Sweet from the Western Slope of Colorado is a descendant from that ancient humble and tough plant.
At the Corn Festival in Olathe, Colorado, corn rules the town and the nearly 20,000 participants who congregate to celebrate. The farmers have sold most of the crop to the supermarket chain Kroger Co., which plans to market Olathe Sweet as one of the nation’s best. Their fresh corn is renowned for its tender and succulent flavor.
According to David Harold, whose father John Harold brokered the deal with Kroger, the Western Slope’s warm days and cool nights contribute to the reason why Olathe corn is spectacular. “The climate here is what makes this corn productive.” he says, “There’s a temperature differential between day and night, 90s in the day, then a drop of 25 degrees at night in the 60s, which makes it sweet and tender. It was bred here so it was made for this area.”
Today’s Corn Likely To Retain Its Natural Sugar
Corn is a grass, so it has an advantage over flowering plants. Grasses don’t wait for the most desirable insect ambling by to help reproduction. The wind will blow corn pollen around the globe. That explains why corn has spread so widely and cross-pollinated into numerous varieties. Of course, it has had help from scientists, too.
The old familiar standards of corn twenty years ago turned sugar to starch as soon as picked. That cultivar was called Golden Bantam and it’s why gardeners with backyard rows of corn put water to boil on the stove before the corn was picked. Corn went directly into the water just seconds after harvest. Today our sweet corn, like Olathe Sweet, has been bred to maintain a sugar level rather than convert immediately into starch. “It’s a specialty item and takes some care,” David says, “When we pick it and harvest, it’s not by machine, but hand picked. That’s because of the tenderness of the kernels. We do it over an 8-week period.”
So it’s important to treat fresh sweet corn like the perishable vegetable that it is. David says that Olathe Sweet is picked and immersed in icy cold water—a kind of slushy–to preserve flavor. Olathe Sweet should be refrigerated when you bring it home. Other cultivars may prefer room temperature. With all varieties, choose ears of corn plump in the middle and tapered at the ends with a slightly damp tassel. That tassel may be brown at the end but should be a little green where it is connected to the corn. Kernels at the tip should be immature. If the kernels are well developed at the tips, chances are the corn is overgrown with tough kernels throughout. And finally, don’t shuck the corn until you cook it.
Olathe Sweet has found a fan in Aspen, too. “I like it for the sweetness, crispness and small kernels,” says Charles Dale, chef and owner of Rustique restaurant. Like any corn aficionado, Charles holds to strict rules when it comes to cooking sweet corn. “My pet peeve is that corn should be cooked no longer than 45 seconds. Then I like to cut it off the cob. I also like it as corn chowder, which we do here with lobster. What’s interesting about this corn chowder is that there’s no cream and no potatoes. The creaminess comes from the natural milkiness of the corn. Then it’s pureed until it’s like silk…no pun on corn silk intended. I came from the East Coast where we got good New Jersey corn. But out here, the corn is delicious.” (Charles’ recipe follows)
Sweet Corn Is Getting Sweeter
The “natural milkiness” that Charles refers to is a characteristic of sweet corn. Ears of corn are ripe when they reach what is called the “milk” stage. A kernel of corn will ooze a creamy fluid when pierced. Wait for the next stage and the kernel will dry to popcorn or cornmeal fare.
On the Harold farm, David’s favorite way to cook corn is to throw the entire ear, in its husk, on a fire. The husk turns black and then he shucks and eats it. But that’s not the only way to eat Olathe Sweet. “The field workers roast it on the high muffler of the machines. Some will husk it; others leave it in the husk,” David says, “but if you boil it in water it should cook no more than 60 seconds.”
Today it’s not easy to understand all the varieties of corn on the market. There’s Normal Sugary (su), which is the category where you’ll find the old Golden Bantam and Silver Queen. They’re still plentiful and popular. These are the varieties you’ll want to cook immediately after picking. But more often you’ll see the Sugary Enhanced (se) and (se+) that will hold their sugar after harvest. Usually these varieties will have the words “sweet” or “sugar” somewhere in the name. And then you’ll find Supersweet (sh2), which are labeled intensely sweet with names that end in “candy” or the words “extra sweet” included in their descriptions.
Whatever corn you choose, it’s low in fat and calories. Vitamins A and C join fiber, folate and potassium to give corn some nutritional clout. And for only a couple of summer months, there’s no sweeter vegetable to grace a plate.
Charles Dale’s Lobster Corn Chowder
“There is nothing better, nor more acutely American, than sweet corn in the summer,” Charles writes about this recipe, “Fresh and lively, smooth as silk, corn is a quintessential country ingredient. The addition of Maine lobster to this soup brings it from the homey to the ethereal, a perfect example of “Haute Rustic” cuisine. You’ll notice that there is no cream in this recipe. We keep it light by using two percent milk: the natural sugars and starch in the corn combine with the milk to give this soup its distinctive silky richness.” Charles also says that you can make this soup without lobster, too.
- 1 Maine lobster, cooked, about 1 ½ pounds
- 2 tablespoons corn oil, or vegetable oil
- 2 celery stalks, roughly chopped
- 1 medium onion, sliced
- 1 leek, white part only sliced
- 3 cloves garlic
- 7 ears of sweet corn
- 6 cups two percent milk
- 1 small bunch fresh summer savory, or fresh thyme
- 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
- pinch of cayenne
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small red onion, finely diced
- 1 small red bell pepper, finely diced
- 1 clove garlic, chopped or pressed
- ½ jalapeno pepper, finely minced, or favorite hot sauce
- Small bunch fresh chives, finely snipped
Husk the corn, and remove all the silk. Washing the corn under cold running water will facilitate this. Cut all the corn from the cobs and reserve the cobs. Place the two percent milk, the corncobs, the salt and the summer savory or fresh thyme in a 4-quart saucepot. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes.
Reserve 1/4 of the corn kernels.
Meanwhile, heat a ten-inch sauté pan over medium heat, and add the 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the diced onion and bell pepper, sweat for five minutes, stirring, then add the garlic, the jalapeno, and the reserved corn kernels. Stir for one minute and remove from heat.
Heat the corn oil in a separate 4-quart stockpot and sauté the celery, onion and leek. Add the garlic cloves and the remaining three quarts of the corn kernels and sauté for two more minutes. Strain the hot milk over the pot and discard the herbs and the corncobs. Add the cayenne pepper and simmer for 30 minutes more.
Blend the soup and strain through a medium strainer. Check the seasoning and adjust if necessary. Keep the soup warm. To serve, slice the lobster tail and claws into 12 pieces. Spoon two tablespoons of the corn and pepper mixture into the center of six bowls, place two pieces of lobster in bowls and garnish with the snipped chives. Transfer the soup to a pitcher and pour at the tables.
Fresh Barely Cooked Corn in Tomato Cups with Cilantro Salsa
- 4 ears of tender fresh corn, cooked for less than one minute
- 4 ripe tomatoes
- 1 bunch cilantro, about one cup, leaves mostly with woody stems discarded
- 1 lime, juiced
- kosher salt to taste
- 1 jalapeno pepper, seeds and stem discarded, cut into strips
- ¼ to ½ cup olive oil
Shuck the kernels off the corn and cook in boiling water for 45 seconds. Cut medium-sized tomatoes in half and scoop out the inside. Reserve for another use. In a blender or food processor add the cilantro, juice of one lime, kosher salt to taste, olive oil and jalapeno pepper. Blend until it forms a sauce. Place sauce in the bottom of a plate and spoon the fresh corn and tomatoes on top.
Fresh Corn Timbale with Roasted Red Sweet Pepper
- 1 sweet red pepper
- 4 ears of fresh corn
- 1 cup of half-and-half
- 3 eggs, beaten
- ½ cup of Parmesan cheese
- Salt and pepper to taste
Roast red pepper by placing it over a gas flame and turning it as the skin blisters. Or place the pepper in a shallow pan under the oven broiler and turn it as the skin blisters. When the skin is charred all over, put the pepper in a plastic bag and wait until it is cool enough to handle. Then peel off the skin, discard the stem and seeds and slice the pepper into small squares. Set aside.
Cut kernels off the corn. Mix eggs with half and half, add the corn, salt and pepper. Set aside.
Butter four custard cups. Place several pieces of red pepper in the bottom. Pour in the custard corn mixture. Sprinkle with cheese. Place the custard cups in a baking dish with water. The water should come up to about half the height of the cups. Bake in a 360-degree oven for 30 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the custard comes out clean. When slightly cooled, run a blunt knife around the edges. The custard will slip out.
To be authentic to Colorado in your menu, serve with long-simmering pinto beans.
Corn with Compound Butters: compound butters are nothing more than herbs or spices added to butter. You can make up the proportions that are the most appealing to you. Here are a few ideas to get you going. Add one of the following to a half stick of butter and allow to sit for about two hours in refrigeration before serving:
- Chile powder and garlic, about two tablespoons of chile and one tablespoon of fresh, minced fresh garlic.
- Or, fresh cilantro and lime: three tablespoons of minced fresh cilantro, juice from one half a lime.
- Or, fresh parsley, garlic and tarragon: two tablespoons minced of each herb, one of garlic.
Olathe Corn Festival: www.olathesweetcornfest.com