After a June trip to the farmers market, I called my neighbor, whom Hub and I have begun calling The Produce Tom. Like the vegetable delivery service, he deposits overabundance from his backyard garden at our door.
My message: “This is an important alert. There is corn at the farmers market. I repeat, there is corn at the farmers market. That is all.” (Corn is one thing he doesn’t grow.)
I needn’t have bothered with the call. Produce Tom informed me that I was two bags behind him in the rush to fresh corn – two giant 25- to 30-ear bags, which he had prepped and frozen (after gobbling up a good portion of it).
We’re both corn-crazy. We believe that if summer in the South had its own flag, it would show one gorgeous ear of corn, golden kernels peeping from an emerald husk, corn silk flowing from the top like baby-blond hair. And we would salute it daily.
I covet summer’s tomatoes, still warm from the sun, and its succulent peaches, which perfume the humid air. But fresh sweet corn, moist and just-picked dewy, is the jewel in summer’s crown.
People never complain about a midsummer flood of corn, as they do when the squash starts barreling in. I hear no end of panicked pleas about that: “Do you know ANYTHING I can do with all this ZUCCHINI?” The desperate think that, as a Food Professional, I have a magic wand that will make squash disappear, or at least turn it into something the kids will eat for the 99th time.
But the words “fresh corn” and “glut” never even land in the same sentence. Because we can’t get enough. Having too much corn would be like having too much money: unlikely to happen, but a nice problem to have if it did.
Traditionally, corn holds a special place in the Southern food world. Chapel Hill food writer Sheri Castle writes in “The New Southern Garden Cookbook” (University of North Carolina Press, 2011): “Corn is the giant of the southern garden, not only in size but also in importance. No other crop is more versatile or more important to the traditional southern diet. … Corn, both fresh and dried, was our grain, cereal, vegetable, flour and fodder and the basis of our best liquors – bourbon and moonshine.”
Castle also notes that growing corn requires less land than is needed for cultivating wheat and offers a higher yield, making it a good crop for home gardens and small farms. Corn can handle the summer heat. It can be dried and ground into meal. Think of hominy, grits and cornmeal.
That’s all good, but fresh corn is special because it’s as delightful and short-lived as lightning bugs – and “fresh” has a different meaning when it comes to this vegetable.
Truly fresh corn is picked in the morning and eaten that night. Why? The minute the ear of corn is picked, its sweetness begins to convert to starch, and it starts to lose moisture, although the husks help retain it. And, for goodness’ sake, don’t buy it already shucked unless you want corn that’s halfway to drying out by the time you get it home.
When corn is really fresh, it barely needs cooking. Actually, I put it raw into salads or salsas. If boiling or steaming, it needs only a couple of minutes, no more. If I’m sautéing some bell peppers and onions for a quickie version of the Cajun dish maque choux, the corn goes in last and only for a minute or so.
When circumstances interfere with my corn consumption and I’ve had ears in the refrigerator for several days, they still work for other uses: fried corn cakes, a simmered stew with tomatoes and okra, or good old Southern succotash with baby butter beans.
Like The Produce Tom, I also stock my freezer with corn, thinking of autumn corn pudding or winter corn chowder. A few fairly short months from now, those bags will be the closest thing to having summer delivered to my door.