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Reinventing the cob

Times Staff Writer

THE taste of corn isn’t what it used to be, people complain. And you know what? They’re right. There’s one very good reason for that -- corn isn’t the same plant it used to be.

Modern corn, for all its faults, is the result of thousands of years of painstaking genetic selection. And therein lies a very important lesson: In agriculture, as in life, you have to be careful what you wish for.

New varieties of corn, bred to have higher levels of sugar and to preserve that sweetness longer, have flooded the market in the last 15 years. Today they’re about the only types of corn you’ll find.

These brave new cobs are definitely sweeter than the old varieties, but they also tend to be a little tougher and somewhat lacking in that ephemeral “corny” flavor.

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Early in the season, we are willing to overlook these shortcomings, so overjoyed are we by the sheer presence of corn at all. But by this time of year, when that sweet honeymoon feeling has worn off, we start to get a little restive. Still, it is way too early to give up on corn. Southern California farmers will be harvesting it for at least two more months and possibly even until Thanksgiving.

Instead, you need to use a few tricks. Granted, the appeal of plain old corn on the cob, simply buttered and generously salted, may not be what it was two months ago. Now you have to get a little creative in your cooking, picking good partners for corn and looking at those kernels in a whole new way. You might even have to throw out some old notions about how to cook corn. But that’s getting a little ahead of the story. What happened to corn in the first place?

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A complicated history

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CORN is a grain, but one that we eat at an immature stage. If left on the stalk to full maturity, the kernels would become as hard as wheat and almost as full of starch. In fact, this is the state in which most of the corn that is grown in America is harvested -- those varieties are not intended for eating but for processing in a whole range of industrial applications, including sweeteners, textiles, automobile fuels and feed for cattle.

The kinds of corn we eat are picked within a month of pollination. In agriculture, these are called “sweet” corn, to differentiate them from field corn. Because of their immaturity, they also have been called “green” corn (hence green corn tamales, which are made with the addition of sweet corn rather than purely from masa, or ground dried corn).

Almost every type of sweet corn grown today has been developed by man for a certain set of characteristics. This is not an example of Frankenfood genetic tinkering -- modern corn isn’t a genetically modified organism, or GMO. It has been going on for centuries. The ur-corn, teosinte, had cobs 2 to 3 inches long that contained half a dozen hard, starchy kernels.

The new super-sweet corns are the result of traditional plant breeding spurred by naturally occurring genetic mutations. Think of it in terms of basketball players: In the general population, the occurrence of extremely tall humans is rare. But if two extremely tall people should find each other, fall in love and have children, the odds that their offspring will be extremely tall are, well, pretty short.

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And so it is with corn. Once breeders started working with a few “freak” corn plants that produced ears with very sweet kernels, it was just a matter of breeding and crossbreeding a few dozen generations to get where we are today.

But genetics is as complicated as a jigsaw puzzle, and it’s hard to alter one factor without changing another. In the case of corn, increasing the sugar content has meant a decline in that amorphous quality called “corn flavor.” It also means kernels that are no longer creamy but crunchy.

The textural difference is easy to explain: The kernels are so full of sugar that there’s not as much room for moisture. And to hold it all in, the skins are tougher.

Flavor is a little harder to explain. What we think of as corn flavor -- as opposed to sweetness and texture -- appears only after cooking; it’s based primarily on aroma. It is mainly a function of a chemical compound called dimethyl sulfide (which is also found in a wide range of foodstuffs, ranging from cabbage to lobster meat). The new varieties of corn are lower than traditional varieties in the chemicals that create dimethyl sulfide.

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There is hope for people who miss real corn flavor. In the last couple of years, varieties have been introduced with complicated genetics that offer the best characteristics of the old and new types. The goal is an ear of corn with the sweetness and slow sugar-to-starch conversion of the new corn, but with the creaminess and strong corn flavor of the old.

The seeds for these varieties are more expensive, so the farmer has to charge more. For this reason, they have been slow to catch on so far. Craig Underwood, who runs his family’s popular farm stand in Somis, says he has tried these varieties. “I did like the flavor. It was really sweet corn,” he says. “But people weren’t willing to pay the extra money for it.”

In any case, when you’re at the farm stand or produce market shopping for corn, odds are you won’t have a clue about the particular genetic strain you’re buying. At best, you’ll be offered a choice of yellow or white -- or bicolor, a cross-pollinated combination of the two.

The differences are meaningless in terms of flavor. Despite what you may have been told, one color of corn is not necessarily sweeter or “cornier” than the other. The small amount of beta-carotene pigment that gives yellow corn its color is flavorless, and the new varieties all come in both white and yellow.

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Really, the choice of color is just packaging; the one you prefer will to a great extent be based on where you live. Different areas of the country prefer different colors of corn. Generally speaking, white corn is preferred from the mid-Atlantic region through the South, bicolor is popular in the Northeast, and yellow rules most everywhere else.

In Southern California, white corn has come to dominate to the point that today, yellow and bicolor can be extremely hard to find. Color preferences in Southern California have done an about-face in the last 15 years, switching from yellow to white in response to what farmers say was overwhelming demand.

Tom Tapia, of the Tapia Brothers farm stand in the San Fernando Valley, still grows some yellow corn, but it is an early variety, available only in July. “After that, it’s all white,” he says. “Back in the day, when they were first coming out with super-sweet varieties, we could only get white ones. So when people tasted that, they were like, ‘Wow, that’s really good.’ Today we can get yellow corn that is just as sweet, but people just have in their head that white is better.”

Steve Tamai, of growers-market favorite Tamai Farms, says he has experienced the same reversal in customer preference. “We used to grow all yellow, and now we grow all white and a little bicolor,” he says. “The market changed. Before, we couldn’t give white corn away. As soon as the super-sweets came up, white corn really took off.”

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The rules have changed

HOW do you get the best flavor out of these new super-sweet varieties? Remember that corn flavor (as opposed to sweetness) develops with heat, so the first rule is to be sure to cook them thoroughly, but without overcooking. This runs counter to the traditional wisdom of undercooking corn -- that was when the problem was preserving sugar rather than keeping corn flavor. Older varieties that were higher in dimethyl sulfide precursors gave you a greater margin of error. Undercook modern varieties and you’ll end up with something simple as candy. (There is, of course, an upper limit to this -- keep tasting the corn to see when it’s ready, and if you see the kernels starting to dimple, stop cooking immediately.)

If you want traditional corn on the cob, put the ears in a pot just big enough to hold them and cover with cold water. Bring the water to a boil and cook the corn for a few minutes. The kernels will darken slightly. Pull the corn from the pot and let it cool a bit.

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There are also ways to reinforce the natural corn flavor. Soak corn still in its husks in water, then grill it. The green-flavored steam from the husks will give the cob a boost. You can then eat the corn either on the cob (try using a flavored butter -- cream the butter with some chipotle puree, or even just lime zest, then shape it in a log and chill it), or use it in combination with other ingredients, such as mixed with spicy arugula, sweet tomatoes and nutty Parmigiano-Reggiano in a late-summer salad.

Another way to bolster the flavor of sweet corn is by pairing it with another type of corn -- such as masa, or plain cornmeal. San Francisco chef Jeremiah Tower’s great corn blini can be transformed by adding kernels of sweet corn and some minced peppers. He served them as a mild foil for smoked sturgeon and caviar. These new blini are so rich-tasting that you can simply smear them with a little Mexican sour cream and some fresh cilantro.

On the other hand, you can play up the sweetness and crisp texture of the new corn while downplaying its lack of deep corn flavor. Combine corn with lots of complementary ingredients. Make a “risotto” with corn kernels and liven it up with chorizo, green onions, red bell peppers, zucchini, shrimp and fresh basil.

It’s a pretty safe bet no one’s going to complain, “You know, I just don’t think this corn tastes like it used to.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Corn from the source

Tapia Brothers, 5251 Hayvenhurst Ave., Encino; (818) 905-6155.

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Underwood Farm Market, 5696 Los Angeles Ave., Somis; (805) 386-4660.

Tamai Farms is at the following growers markets: Tuesday: Pasadena (Villa Park) and Culver City; Wednesday: Santa Monica and Fullerton; Thursday: Westwood, Glendale and La Cienega Plaza; Friday: Long Beach and San Pedro; Saturday: Santa Monica, Santa Monica (Pico), Torrance and La Canada Flintridge; Sunday: Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles.

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Yesterday, today and tomorrow in the cornfield

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BESIDES traditional corn -- which is practically nonexistent today (and would be so starchy you wouldn’t like it even if you could find it) -- corn breeders recognize three main families of improved sweet corn, each with its own set of attributes.

Agronomists refer to these genotypes using two-letter shorthand. The most basic improved corn is “su,” for “sugary.” This type of corn was first mentioned in seed journals in the 1820s but had probably existed before. It was the result of the earliest kind of genetic manipulation, farmers selecting seeds from the sweetest plants to propagate the next year.

Most varieties of this type of corn have sugar contents ranging from 10% to 15%, about the same as a supermarket peach. But this sweetness is fleeting; the sugar starts converting to starch the moment it is picked. If left at room temperature, an ear of “su” corn will lose half of its sugar in less than a day. Even if chilled to normal refrigerator temperatures (40 to 50 degrees), it’ll lose two-thirds of its sweetness within three days.

Corn that is bred to be sweeter is called “se,” for “sugar-enhanced.” These types are a lot sweeter than normal corn -- they contain as much as twice the sugar -- but the sugar-to-starch conversion occurs at about the same rate as with “su” corn. The advantage is that because the corn starts out so much sweeter, it takes up to a week of storage before the sweetness falls to the level of normal corn.

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The real King Kongs of the corn world are varieties that are not only super-sweet but also go starchy much more slowly. These are called “sh2" corns because of the way they shrivel and appear shrunken after drying. These varieties contain sugar levels between 30% and 45% -- two to three times that of normal corn. And their sugar-to-starch conversion rate is so slow as to be almost nonexistent. Even after a couple of days of storage at warm room temperature -- 80 degrees -- these varieties still have more than twice as much sugar as a freshly picked ear of “su” corn.

Most of the corn you buy today is either “se” or “sh2.” The corn of the future will probably be one of the new varieties that aim for a combination of old and new qualities. These fall into two main categories. Some try to accomplish this by a straight genetic blend, combining the best characteristics of each in every kernel. Others take a different route, mixing on the same cob kernels of each type of corn, so a single ear might contain 25% “su,” 50% “se” and 25% “sh2.”

Russ Parsons

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Sweet corn and shrimp ‘risotto’

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Servings: 6 to 8

1 pound large shrimp, in shell

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1/2 cup chopped green onion (trimmings saved)

1/2 cup diced red bell pepper (trimmings saved)2 1/2 teaspoon salt, divided

3 to 4 zucchini (4 cups sliced)

6 ears of corn (about 5 cups kernels)

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1 tablespoon butter

3/4 cup diced Spanish chorizo

or other mildly spicy dried

sausage (about 2 ounces)

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1/2 cup dry white wine

1/4 cup whipping cream

3 tablespoons slivered basil

1. Shell the shrimp, collecting the shells in a small deep saucepan; set the shrimp aside. Add the green onion and red bell pepper trimmings to the saucepan. Barely cover the shells and trimmings with water, about 3 to 3 1/2 cups, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook 30 minutes, then remove from heat and let steep another 30 minutes. Sitr in one-half teaspoon salt and strain into a measuring cup. You should have about 3 cups of shrimp stock; what you don’t use for this recipe can be stored tightly covered in the refrigerator.

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2. Cut the zucchini in quarters lengthwise, then into crosswise slices about three-eighths-inch thick. You should have about 4 cups.

3. Cut the corn from the cobs by holding each cob upright in a wide, shallow bowl and cutting away the kernels with a sharp knife. Using the back of the knife, scrape any corn left on the cob into the bowl.

4. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the chorizo and cook until well browned, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the green onion and red bell pepper and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.

5. Add the zucchini and shrimp and cook for a minute. Season with 2 teaspoons salt. Add the wine and raise the heat to high. Cook until the mixture is reduced to a syrup, about 5 minutes. Add the corn and one-half cup shrimp stock and let it reduce. Add another one-half cup stock and the whipping cream and cook just until slightly thickened and creamy, about 5 minutes.

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6. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the slivered basil. Taste and adjust seasoning and serve immediately.

Each serving: 195 calories; 14 grams protein; 16 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 8 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 104 mg. cholesterol; 205 mg. sodium.

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Grilled corn and arugula salad

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Total time: 30 minutes plus 20 minutes soaking time

Servings: 6 to 8

2 ears corn

1/2 clove garlic

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1/3 cup finely diced red onion

1/2 pound red and yellow miniature tomatoes, cut in half

4 teaspoons lemon juice

1/4 cup olive oil

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3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 pound arugula

1 ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano

1. To prepare the corn, break off long hard stems and expose the ear by peeling back the husk without breaking it off at the base. Remove the silk by rubbing with your hands and a soft brush. Pull the husk back up over the ear to re-cover it. Soak the ears in cold water at least 20 minutes.

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2. Grill the corn over a hot fire until it is dark yellow and the husks are well marked by the grill, about 15 minutes, turning occasionally to keep the husks from burning. Remove from the grill and set aside to cool.

3. Rub the inside of a large bowl with the cut garlic clove. Add the red onion and tomatoes. Using a sharp knife, cut the corn kernels cleanly from the cobs into the bowl. Do not scrape the cobs to get the last bits; that will muddy the appearance of the dish.

4. In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Place the arugula in a large bowl and toss it with enough of the dressing to coat lightly, about one-third of the total amount. Arrange the arugula on a platter.

5. Add the remaining dressing to the corn and tomatoes and stir together gently. Spoon the corn mixture loosely over the arugula, then use a vegetable peeler to shave cheese over the top. Serve immediately.

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Each serving: 110 calories; 3 grams protein; 8 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 8 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 3 mg. cholesterol; 285 mg. sodium.

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Fresh corn blini with crema fresca

Total time: 35 minutes plus chilling time

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Servings: 6 to 8 (makes about 28)

Note: This recipe is loosely based on one in “Jeremiah Tower’s New American Classics.”

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1 teaspoon sugar

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1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 cups boiling water

2 eggs

3/4 cup milk

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1/2 cup flour

2 tablespoons melted butter

1 cup cooked corn kernels (about 1 ear)

1 1/2 teaspoons minced, seeded red serrano or jalapeno

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pepper

1 tablespoon butter, divided

1/3 cup crema fresca (Mexican sour cream)

Cilantro leaves

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1. Combine the cornmeal, sugar and salt in a bowl and very slowly whisk in the boiling water to make a stiff paste. Let stand 10 minutes to cool.

2. Stir in the eggs, one at a time, then the milk. Sift the flour over the egg mixture. Add the butter and stir until smooth. The texture should be somewhere between thick whipping cream and thin yogurt; if necessary, add a little more milk to thin it. Stir in the corn and pepper. Cover and refrigerate 30 minutes. Heat oven to 250 degrees.

3. Heat a nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Add a little butter and swirl it around the base of the pan to grease it. Slowly pour in 2 scant tablespoons batter and cook until lightly browned and slightly crisp on one side, 2 to 3 minutes. You can cook 5 or 6 blini at a time.

4. When lightly browned on one side, turn and cook 1 to 2 minutes on the other side. Transfer the cooked blini to a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil and keep warm in the oven. Repeat using the rest of the batter, adding more butter if necessary.

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5. Transfer blini to a warm plate and top with about one-half teaspoon of crema fresca and a cilantro leaf. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 200 calories; 6 grams protein; 25 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 9 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 71 mg. cholesterol; 472 mg. sodium.


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