Fresh corn is just available and will soon be abundant on farm stands. But don’t buy too much at once. It’s best eaten as soon as you bring it home, because the natural sugar in the kernels begins converting to starch as soon as it is harvested. In fact, I remember one summer, walking through a cornfield, peeling back the husks and eating just-picked corn raw off the cob—and wondering why we ever bother to cook it.
Corn is native to the Western Hemisphere, and has been a staple of Indian diets in both North and South America. It has been cultivated since 3000 B.C., or perhaps earlier. For many native peoples, corn had religious significance, and its origins were attributed to the gods. A Mayan creation story even claims that life springs from corn. In addition to religious ceremonies, some Indian tribes used corn as a form of currency, for fuel, for making jewelry and even for constructing buildings. European settlers learned about corn from the Indians when, in 1620, the Pilgrims befriended Squanto, a native of the Wampanoag tribe in the Plymouth area. The Wampanoags lived by farming and fishing. Squanto, who had been captured by British seamen and had learned English, taught the Pilgrims about many native plants, including how to grow corn. Closer to our region, the Iroquois diet was based on corn, beans, and squash, the three spirits that sustain life. Corn soup and corn bread were staples of the Iroquois diet.
While many think of corn as a vegetable, it is actually a grain, like wheat or rye. One medium ear contains about 75 calories, three grams of plant protein, one gram of fat, one gram of fiber and 15 grams of carbohydrate. Low in sodium, corn is a good source of protein and fiber, as well as potassium, magnesium, folic acid, thiamine, vitamin A and even vitamin C. The Indians combined it with beans in order to create a complete protein.
At the local farm stand, select corn with bright green, snug husks that are full at the tip, and cream-colored or light yellow silks that are moist and pliable. Avoid ears that have yellowed husks or dark, dried silks; this indicates that the corn has been sitting out in the sun all day. Remember that the freshest corn has the sweetest flavor. At 86 degrees, half the sugar is converted to starch in just 24 hours.
Fresh, sweet corn is one of the simplest and most wholesome culinary delights of summer. It captures the rays of golden sunshine, turning them into sugar. Corn on the cob can be boiled, steamed, grilled, roasted or microwaved.
One of my favorite ways to prepare corn is over a campfire. Remove excess silk from the tip and soak the husks in water for at least a half hour. Roast over the coals so the kernels steam a little. The husks will char in the fire, but the corn inside will be moist, tender and sweet. Remove the hot, cooked corn with thongs, peel back the husks, remove the silk, eat the pure sweetness and throw the cob and husks back into the blazing fire.
You can also roast or grill corn at home. Peel back the husk, remove the silk, moisten the corn with water and replace the husk, then wrap tightly in foil. Cook until the corn begins to steam, or to desired doneness—10 to 20 minutes, turning frequently. Alternately, you can husk the corn first, remove the silk, spread with butter and wrap tightly in foil, then place on the grill over medium heat. Turn frequently. After about 20 minutes, remove from grill, peel foil back carefully and test for doneness.
If you have only a couple of ears, you may choose to cook them in the microwave. You can cook them with husks on, soaking them, or place them in a tightly covered dish and cook. Cooking time will vary depending on the strength of the microwave and the number of ears.
The traditional way to cook fresh corn comes from the Shakers. Shuck the corn by peeling the husk from the top down, then removing it. Snap off the stem and remove the silk. If the silk sticks to the corn, it can be removed with a wet paper towel or a vegetable brush. Then place the husked, de-silked corn in a pot of cold water with a pinch of sugar. Bring to a rapid boil, then cook for just one minute. Drain and serve.
Alternately, you can bring the water to a boil first, then add the corn, return it to a boil and cook for just a couple of minutes, then turn off the heat and let the corn sit in the hot water a couple minutes more. Either way, be careful not to overcook, or the corn will lose its sweetness and the kernels will become tough. Adding salt to the cooking water also causes the kernels to harden.
Shucking, cooking, buttering and eating fresh corn is one of the best ways to savor the golden sunshine of summer. After all, according to Garrison Keillor, “People have tried and tried, but sex is not better than sweet corn.”