Chef’s Corner: Maximizing the Versatility of Sweet Corn

By Chef Eamon Lee, CEC

Nothing speaks to fresh, local, and seasonal better than sweet corn in the summer. Locally, this remarkable ancient crop is abundant in July and August. There are five main types grown around the world: pod corn, the least known variety found in South and Central America; popping corn that originated in Peru; Indian corn that was cultivated by Native Americans; dent corn, the main ingredient used in livestock feed; and sweet corn, the most common culinary species, picked while still immature due to its high sugar content.

Corn feeds and fuels our entire world and its versatility is limitless. While eating traditional corn on the cob in the summer is sublime, serving it using only this approach fails to explore the versatility of this crop. Differentiate yourself and elevate your menu by thinking beyond the cob, utilizing each component in soups, stews, casseroles, salads, salsas, stocks, desserts, and beyond!

Across the Menu

For the sweetest, most flavorsome results using local sweet corn, it should be prepared as soon as possible as it loses 25% of its sugars around 24 hours after harvest. There are limitless applications for executing local corn at your restaurant. Corn at its peak begs for and allows you to flex your creativity, utilizing the bountiful summer crop in dishes across all menu sections and dayparts. Each cooking method lends its unique flavor advantages.

Boiled: When utilizing the simplest and most common method for cooking corn, avoid adding salt to the water to prevent toughening. If you determine the corn is not sweet enough, you can add a little sugar to the water. Boiling corn in a water-milk-butter combination along with sugar is a standard Southern preparation.

Sous vide: When you vacuum seal the corn alone or with butter, herbs, and seasonings, the water in the immersion circulator doesn’t come in contact with the corn, and
thus does not dilute the sweet summer flavor as with traditional boiling.

Grilled: If grill marks are important to you, peel and scrub the corn clean before placing it on the grill. Otherwise, keep the husks on, though you will need to cut off loose husks and silks. Grill over low heat for half an hour, turning often. Before service or tableside, peel back the husk to form a handle and brush away the easy-to-remove silks. Serve with interesting and unique compound butters highlighting seasonal fresh herbs, or for some Mexican flair, slather cobs with mayonnaise, lime juice, and sprinkle with queso cotija*. Or, serve the grilled kernels off the cob in a corn salad with shaved fennel and peaches, a cucumber-corn salad with pomegranates, or a summer succotash salad.

Fried: If you’re not from the South, you probably aren’t familiar with the common Southern fried corn dish, and it isn’t what you think it is. You might look at it and label it creamed corn. Fried corn or fatback-fried corn is traditionally fresh corn stripped from the cob and fried in bacon or fatback, shallots, and garlic. The creaminess of the dish comes simply from the corn milk that emerges when you grate the corn off the cob, though sometimes a little cream is added.

Roasted/Broiled: This technique produces a flavor that mirrors grilled corn and allows for additional flavor; perhaps an Asian-inspired combo of hoisin, honey, soy sauce, and lime. This method involves the broiler and some foil to line the pan or to cover the corn completely. It may be one of the fastest corn preparations and requires a watchful eye. As a main entrée, offer a roasted sweet corn hash dressed in basil vinaigrette served with seared scallops and fingerling potatoes. Or, prepare corn mac and cheese or a cheesy corn casserole as optional side dishes to increase price points.

RECIPE: Roasted Corn, Grilled Eggplant and Tomato with Manchego & Basil Oil

Around the Globe

Formerly known as a wild grass called teosinte, maize is believed to have been first cultivated in Mexico as far back as 10,000 years ago. Corn remains a primary component in countless Latin American dishes, and its use continues to evolve with current trends. It was called mahiz by the indigenous people, meaning “that which sustains us,” and it’s thought that Native Americans taught early European settlers how to transform corn into flour, soups, and cakes. It eventually found its way south to Peru and north into the Southwestern United States. Christopher Columbus imported corn to Europe, where it weaved its way into the fabric of modern European cooking.

In the current global culinary climate, corn continues to enjoy a multitude of ethnic spins. This summer, consider marketing local sweet corn weekly in any number of global menu inspirations. Here are some international favorites:
• Grilled corn with coconut milk is popular in the Southeast Asian tropical region of Cambodia.
• Mashed potatoes with a puréed corn topping is a traditional casserole in Argentina.
• Kenyans roll hot, grilled sweet corn in salt, lime juice, and minced chili peppers.
• Cachapas are Venezuelan corn pancakes with cheese including corn, masa harina*, and gooey cheese, as in queso de mano or mozzarella.

If time constraints prevent all-scratch cooking for your global corn theme, Maines also supplies you with numerous corn products to help fill in the gaps.

Local Produce-Fresh Sweet Corn
Item# 097151
1 / 48 ea.
• Can be served in a wide variety of applications including grilled, broiled, or roasted.

 

Uses for the Whole Cob

You wouldn’t dispose of the chicken bones or fat without considering using them for a stock or flavorful jus, would you? Approach corn the same way and capture flavor from the husks, silks, kernels, and cobs. Start simple with corn stock, an excellent summer ingredient that’s one of the easiest vegetable based stocks to make. After the kernels are shaved from the cobs, simmer them in water, milk, or chicken stock with a pinch of salt. Strain and store the resulting stock in the refrigerator or freezer to use when making risotto, corn chowder, polenta, a vinaigrette for summer greens, or as liquid for cooking grains. The kernels can also be used to make a corn crema by simmering kernels with onions until almost tender and puréeing until smooth. Serve the crema over homemade pappardelle with charred green onions.

Even corn silks bring a lot of game to the kitchen! Drying, frying, and seasoning corn silks produce a unique garnish to top creamy polenta, corn chowder, or corn salad. To prepare, remove any black silks and dry the remaining strands on a sheet pan in a low oven for several hours. Then deep-fry them, transfer to a paper towel, and season. For an innovative breakfast or brunch dish, season the fried corn silks with salt, cayenne, nutmeg, cumin, smoked paprika, and lime zest, form it into a nest, and use it for a creative egg presentation. Corn silks also contain several health benefits, presenting great opportunity to offer a corn silk tea marketed as a natural herbal remedy.

Creativity is key when it comes to corn. Corn husks could be considered our local version of the banana leaf, and it can be used as a flavorful form of aluminum foil. Use corn husks to enclose fish such as salmon seasoned with cumin, onion, pecans, and aromatics. When cooked over direct heat, this technique embeds the nutty, toasty, and smoky flavor of the corn into the fish while preventing it from burning. Corn kernels can be used like rice, or “risotto,” by simply sweating raw kernels with aromatics, a little corn stock, and finishing with Parmesan cheese, chives, and some seasoned corn silks you made! Try simmering corncobs in milk, then froth, and use as a contrasting garnish. Emphasize corn using other creative preparations such as a smoked corn sauce, corn purée enriched with butter that can be added to a fricassee with chanterelle mushrooms and chorizo, or served over fish. Imparting taste from each element of corn truly captures the produce and showcases its versatile character.

RECIPE: Prosciutto-Wrapped Scallops with Grilled Sweet Corn Salad & Romesco Sauce

Don’t Forget Dessert

Corn and its components offer sweet and savory attributes that lend themselves to a wide range of desserts. Vida in Indianapolis serves a trendy dessert that emphasizes corn by utilizing the husks. The dish contains grilled corn cakes topped with peaches, blueberries, peach sorbet, corn husk cream, and popcorn. A simple cornbread can also be elevated by baking it in the husks and serving it with a sage cream. The husks amplify the corn flavor while the cream, made with crème fraîche, shallot, salt, and sage leaves, balances the sweetness. Serving cornbread in the husks also makes for an enticing presentation.