Many seasonal ingredients are around for a very short window of time; their fleetingness is part of their allure. You get excited for them to arrive, eat as much as you can of them while they’re around, and then pine for them the remaining 50 weeks of the year. Sour cherries in the summer, ramps (on the East Coast) in late spring, persimmons or clementines in the winter — all foods that we desperately want more of but nature stingily keeps from us for most of our lives.
Then there are those ingredients that are technically seasonal but are also so abundant throughout the year that we forget why they’re so special to begin with. Chief among these is corn. Don’t get me wrong, I know that, come late summer, corn can be delightfully sweet, tender and aromatic. But also, corn is available all year round in fresh cobs flown in from the Midwest or often South America, in cans of whole and creamed varieties, and in bags in the freezer aisle. (Mind you, frozen corn is often of such high quality that it’s the best choice for the out-of-season vegetable.)
Right now, corn is in season and in the markets, and it’s perfect. This is about the only time of year I crave it, often slicing raw kernels from their cobs and eating them by the spoonful out of a bowl with maybe a squeeze of lime juice and sprinkling of sea salt. Its sweetness is so subtle that any other preparation — sautéeing it with bell peppers for succotash, mixing it with black beans, or making a salsa with it — might overshadow it.
But there’s one exception I’m willing to make with fresh corn, and it’s to make Korean “corn cheese,” precisely because it’s so outlandishly wonderful. Korean corn cheese, as anyone who’s ever been to a Korean barbecue restaurant knows, is a concoction of corn topped with melted mozzarella cheese that fills half the moat that surrounds the central grill at the table; a soufflé-like egg custard fills the other half. It’s a sweet counterpoint to all the rich meat on the grill and briny preserved vegetables that accompany it.
Although I rarely sit down to a bowl of corn and cheese, I can make an excuse for the indulgence if I sandwich it between two thick slices of acidic sourdough bread and call it a grilled cheese, which I’ll eat with a salad because, you know, balance. Lightly sautéeing the corn, sweetening it with a small pinch of sugar, then mixing it with melty cheeses and just enough mayonnaise to bind it makes for a killer grilled cheese sandwich. Instead of all toasty edges and creamy insides, you get surprise pops of corn’s unmistakable texture and sweetness. It’s now a sandwich I crave and luckily can make any time I want it, no matter the season.
Korean Corn Grilled Cheese
40 minutes. Serves 4.
The beauty of this dish is in tasting the sweet corn mixing with the super stretchy cheese. If you want, you can just use low-moisture mozzarella (you can use fresh mozzarella if you’re against the low-moisture kind, but it won’t melt the same way or produce the same flavor we’re after here), but adding fontina or provolone offers a little more flavor without overpowering the sweetness of the corn.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
½ cup minced yellow onion
1½ cups corn kernels (from 3 to 4 ears)
Granulated sugar (optional), if you think the corn needs it
2 tablespoons mayonnaise, plus more for brushing
8 ounces low-moisture mozzarella, shredded (2 cups)
4 ounces fontina or provolone cheese, shredded (1 cup)
2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 slices really good sourdough bread, cut ¾-inch thick
1 Heat the butter in a large cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until soft and just beginning to brown at the edges, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the corn and sugar (if using) and cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes. Scrape the corn into a bowl and let cool for 10 minutes (wipe the skillet clean and reserve). Stir in the 2 tablespoons mayonnaise, followed by the mozzarella, fontina and parsley, and season with salt and pepper.
2 Brush a thin layer of mayonnaise on each slice of the sourdough bread, then turn the slices over. Divide the corn mixture among 4 slices of bread, then sandwich them with the other 4 slices. (Make sure the “mayonnaise sides” are facing outward.)
3 Heat the reserved skillet over medium heat. Add 2 sandwiches to the skillet, cover, and cook, flipping once, until golden brown outside and the cheese is melted inside, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer the sandwiches to a cutting board and repeat with the remaining sandwiches.
4 As soon as they’re cooked, cut the sandwiches in half and eat, being careful not to burn your mouth on the molten cheese.
Elotes Grilled Cheese: Substitute queso Oaxaca for the mozzarella, substitute queso fresco for the fontina, substitute cilantro for the parsley, and add 1/2 teaspoon chile-lime salt, such as Tajin to the corn mixture. Serve hot with a squeeze of fresh lime.