Sweet corn is best when it’s very fresh. Look for bright, light green husks and check that the kernels are plump and fairly young — there’s a balance to be struck between the tiny, picked just a bit sooner ears, which are delicious but less in quantity of edible corn, and the fat, old ones that are going to yield the most edible kernel, but are starchy and lack delicacy.
Choosing between white, yellow and bicolor corn is a personal choice. I remember the white ‘shoepeg’ corn from Long Island, where I grew up. The kernels were elongated, and the corn was incredibly flavorful. I find the white corn here over-bred for sweetness, and prefer the yellow, which is in my opinion, more ‘corny’ in flavor. When I see people peeling off the husks at the market, I always want to tell them to stop. Yes, you will have less green waste and mess at home, but the husk protects the ears and keeps the flavors and freshness inside for longer.
The classic way to cook corn is to strip the husks off, and boil it. Use salted water, and it’s done in a matter of a minute or two. Overcook it, and it will get soft and no longer have that fresh flavor. I’ve seen people boil corn for 20 minutes. Really, trust me, if it’s fresh and young, you just don’t need to do that. Another great way to cook the corn is on the grill. You can grill it in the husk, which gives the best flavor of all — you just have turn it frequently, give it a bit more time to let the heat penetrate, and be prepared to peel the steaming husks off without burning yourself. You can also husk the corn and then grill it, over hot coals or gas flame, turning frequently, either dry or brushed with a bit of butter.
Speaking of butter, there are a lot of recipes out there for enhancing the topping put on ears of corn beyond simple butter and salt. A mix of butter, hot sauce, and crumbled feta or cojita cheese slathered on hot corn is delicious, for instance. Messy, but yummy, especially on a grilled ear.
What else can you do with corn? I love corn soup, corn salad, corn kernels in my cornbread. I’m dating myself perhaps, but I grew up with mom serving canned creamed corn every once in a while. Making your own is super easy. Start with raw ears of corn, and follow my simple instructions to prep the dish. You really don't need a recipe.
The first secret: Think about what cornstarch is. Yes, it is the natural thickener found in corn. So, you don’t need anything else to thicken your dish. Second secret: You do not want to stand the corn up on end and cut off the kernels. You’ll end up with corn everywhere but your cutting board, and that’s no fun. Simply lay the ear down on the board, and cut the kernels off that way. And, do not cut too deep. That is the most important secret of all. You really want to cut about half the kernel off, and then you can turn the cob so it stands up, and take the back of your knife, and scrape all the good flesh from the cob. That leaves behind the tough outer shell of the bottom of each kernel. You will have a tender and delicious pile of corn at the end. If you’re making creamed corn, simply sauté in a little butter, with salt and pepper, and finish with a touch of cream or sour cream. Done in a few minutes, a delicious side dish. Another idea is to mix the corn with other vegetables — on a recent trip, a Nuevo Mexican restaurant we visited served corn and diced grilled poblano chilies together, adding some diced zucchini as well as a bit of crema.
Once you have your pile of corn, if you’re making soup, you want to put the cobs into water to cover, and cook them for about 15 minutes. Add a little salt, which will help extract the good flavors from the cobs. Drain the liquid from the cobs, and you’ll be surprised how much good flavor it contains. Use it as the base for your soup.
To make the soup, simply dice up an onion, sauté in butter with salt and pepper until limp and just starting to color, add the corn, the corn cob stock, more salt and pepper, and cook for a couple of minutes. Finish with some cream, and you have a delicious vegetarian soup. I like to top it with something — I’ve kept it simple here, with some slivers of basil from my garden. The Corn Soup recipe in our recipes file makes a basil-scallion oil, a fun way to finish the soup. I’ve also topped the soup for fancier presentation with seafood of one sort or another, from small shrimp sautéed with garlic and smoked paprika, to seared well-seasoned scallops. Also in the recipe file, you'll find a Creamy Leek and Corn Chowder recipe to try.
I’m going to suggest you invent a corn salad of your own. Just make a couple of extra ears next time you’re serving simple boiled or grilled corn, and cut the kernels off the cob to make a salad. Lime juice, grilled chilies, cheese, cilantro are my choices for a salad. What are yours? Feel free to email me your recipe, and I’ll publish the best results!