The Ears Have It

Brenda Bell last wrote about tiramisu for the magazine

During the several years my husband and I spent in Washington, D.C., we found unexpected pleasures in the rhythm of life on the East Coast. We loved the regular seasons--spring, summer, winter, fall--arriving right on time, just like the calendar said. We became deeply attached to the local farmers markets (ours was the venerable Eastern Market on Capitol Hill), where city dwellers snapped up the seasonal bounty of the Chesapeake Bay region: sweet blue crabs, crisp Appalachian apples, organic chickens deboned in a flash of knives wielded by two exceedingly handsome brothers from Baltimore. Last but not least, there was the corn.

Fresh corn on the Potomac? Yes, indeed. Fields of 7-foot-tall corn were ripening in the breeze as we drove back from a weekend aboard our little sailboat on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Stopping at a roadside stand one day, we bought a dozen plump ears for a ridiculously low price. The farmer told us it was Silver Queen, a white variety we'd never had before. That night at supper we took our first bite of Silver Queen and experienced what could best be called a corn epiphany. So sweet! So tender! So sweet!

The next weekend we went back for more. We searched for it in farmers markets. No more ordinary yellow corn for us. It was Silver Queen or nothing. For weeks, we had our fill. Then the harvest was over, and we were spoiled forever.

We didn't know it then, but we were on the leading edge of a taste revolution that has swept cornfields all across America. Today, most fresh corn (both yellow and white) at the supermarket is one of a dozen or so "supersweet" hybrids, which beat standard varieties like Silver Queen at their own game. These newer hybrids contain two to three times as much sugar as the older types. They're also bred to slow the metabolic conversion of sugar to starch after harvest, ensuring better quality and a longer shelf life at the store. (This conversion occurs quickly in standard varieties and is the reason for the old adage that you should bring the pot of water to boil before you go out to pick the corn.)

Another type of hybrid, called "sugar-enhanced" corn, contains only 10% to 15% more sugar and metabolizes at about the same rate as regular corn. They're popular at roadside stands and farmers markets, where they can be sold fresh from the field.

Not everyone believes that candy-sweet corn is an improvement. "For those of us who grew up in the Midwest, these do not taste like the roasting ears we used to have," says Tim Hartz, an agronomist at UC Davis. But the majority rules the market, and the overwhelming consumer preference is for sweetness.

All but a small percentage of the corn grown in the United States is for livestock feed, not human consumption; less than 30,000 acres planted in California are destined for the table. Yet SoCal corn lovers enjoy a superlong season that puts the rest of the country, including the Corn Belt, to shame.

"Essentially from the first of May to the end of October, any corn you see in California grocery stores is going to be from the West Coast," Hartz says. Beginning with the spring harvest in the Imperial and Coachella valleys, the harvest marches northward, finishing up in Oregon's Willamette Valley in August. In the milder coastal zone--Ventura, Orange and San Diego counties--corn is still being picked in October.

Angelenos can also grow their own corn through the summer and fall, as long as they live within 15 miles or so of the coast, Hartz says. Even the long-lasting supersweets will taste better when picked in your backyard and cooked immediately.

Roasting is a trendy way to cook corn these days, but I find that carefully pulling down the husks, removing the silks and then replacing the husks is too tedious when I'm feeding a crowd. It's easier to just rip that stuff off and throw the clean ears into a big pot of boiling water--then turn the flame off (or remove the pot from the electric burner) and let the ears sit for a couple of minutes. The hot water gives good fresh corn all the cooking it needs. Let your guests add butter and salt to taste.

Here are five more recipes that make excellent use of our enviable corn season. Eat your heart out, Nebraska.

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Silver Queen Corn Spoon Bread

Adapted from a recipe by Seattle cookbook

author Sharon Kramis

Makes 6 to 8 servings

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5-6 ears (or 2 cups) Silver Queen corn (or any supersweet variety), uncooked

2 cups milk

1 1/2 cups white cornmeal

1/4 cup butter

1 cup shredded white cheddar cheese

1 clove garlic, minced

6 eggs, separated

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

*

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut corn kernels from cobs and set aside.

Combine milk and cornmeal in heavy saucepan. Stir and cook over medium heat until mixture thickens, making sure it doesn't burn. Remove from heat and add butter, stirring to melt. Stir in corn kernels, cheese and garlic and set aside to cool.

Beat egg yolks and add to cornmeal mixture, along with baking powder, salt and sugar. Mix well. Beat egg whites to stiff peaks in large bowl and fold into cornmeal mixture. Pour into buttered 2-quart souffle or casserole dish.

Bake until top is puffed and golden, 45 to 50 minutes (less if dish is shallow). Serve immediately.*

Baked Corn and Tomatoes

Adapted from "The Heritage of Southern Cooking" by Camille Glenn (Workman Publishing, 1986)

Makes 6 to 8 servings

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4-5 thick slices bacon

1/2 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 onion, diced

1 green or red bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped

9 ears sweet corn, uncooked

1/4 cup whipping cream

3 ripe tomatoes, peeled and sliced

1 tablespoon cold butter, diced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Chopped fresh Italian parsley

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Cook bacon in skillet, then drain on paper towels and cut into small pieces. Set aside. Pour off fat from skillet, add olive oil and saute onion and bell pepper. Set aside.

Cut corn kernels from cobs into large bowl, scraping cobs well to extract milk. Stir in cream. Add sauteed onion and bell pepper. Spread half of corn mixture in buttered 11/2-quart casserole dish. Layer with bacon and half of tomato slices. Repeat layers. Dot with butter and season lightly with salt and pepper.

Cover with foil and bake 25 to 35 minutes in preheated 350-degree oven. Remove foil and continue baking 10 minutes. Sprinkle with fresh parsley and serve.

Fresh Corn Pancakes With Blueberries

Adapted from "Almost Vegetarian Entertaining" by Diana Shaw (Crown Publishing Group, 1998)

Makes 4 servings

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1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 cup yellow cornmeal, preferably stone-ground

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

4 large egg whites

2 cups buttermilk

2 ears (or 1 cup) corn, uncooked

1 fresh or frozen blueberries

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Combine flour, cornmeal, sugar and baking soda in large bowl. Stir with whisk or long-tined fork to blend.

Combine egg whites and buttermilk in separate bowl. Add to flour mixture and stir well to blend.

Cut corn kernels from cobs. Gently stir them and blueberries into batter.

Lightly coat nonstick skillet or griddle with unsalted butter, vegetable oil or nonstick spray. Place over medium heat until hot.

Using 1/4-cup measuring cup, drop batter onto skillet, leaving room for pancakes to spread. Cook over medium heat until bubbles appear all over, 3 to 4 minutes. Carefully turn with wide spatula, cooking until bottom is set, about 2 minutes.

Transfer pancakes to serving plate and keep warm. Serve with maple syrup and/or blueberry jam.

Lobster and Corn Chowder

Adapted from "The Perfect Recipe: Getting It Right Every Time" by Pam Anderson (Houghton Mifflin, 1998)

Makes 6 to 8 servings

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2 lobsters (11/4-11/2 pounds each)

2 tablespoons butter

1 medium-large onion, diced

3 tablespoons flour

1/2 cup dry white wine

2 medium boiling potatoes, diced

4 ears corn, kernels cut from cob (or 2 cups frozen, thawed)

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

Salt

Ground black or white pepper

*

Bring 1 quart water to boil in large soup pot fitted with steamer basket. Add lobsters, cover and steam until lobsters are bright orange-red and fully cooked, about 10 minutes. Transfer lobsters to large bowl; cool slightly. Working over bowl to catch lobster liquid, remove meat from each claw and tail. Return all lobster shells and their liquid to steaming liquid; chop lobster meat into bite-size pieces and set aside. Bring lobster broth and shells to simmer and continue to simmer to further flavor broth, about 10 minutes. Pour broth through fine strainer and set aside; discard shells. (You should have about 41/2 cups broth; if not, add enough water to complete measure.) Rinse and dry pot; return to burner.

Heat butter in pot over medium-high heat. Add onion and saute until softened, about 5 minutes. Add flour and stir until lightly colored, about 1 minute. Gradually whisk in wine, then lobster broth. Add potatoes, corn, cayenne and thyme and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Add lobster, cream, parsley and salt and pepper; bring to simmer. Remove from heat and serve.

Fresh Corn and Avocado Salsa

Adapted from a recipe by Seattle chef-consultant Kathy Casey

Makes 3 cups

*

2 ears yellow corn, kernels cut from cobs

1/4 cup red onion, finely diced

1 ripe avocado, diced

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 cup diced ripe tomatoes

1-2 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 or 2 jalapeno peppers, finely minced

1 teaspoon coriander seeds, lightly toasted and crushed

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Mix all ingredients in bowl not more than 1 hour before serving.

Note: To toast coriander seeds, which brings out their flavor, heat small skillet over medium-high heat and add seeds. Stir with wood spoon or shake pan just until seeds are fragrant and lightly toasted. Remove from heat and put seeds onto cutting board to cool. Cover with plastic wrap and crush with heavy pan or use mortar and pestle.

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Food stylist: Christine Anthony-Masterson

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