- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

It was like the Nancy Drew mysteries of my childhood. Everyone I asked had a clue, and in the end I discovered the secret, but it took searching, deductive reasoning and a bunch of eating. Not a bad summer project, all in all.

At a dinner party of mostly strangers, I hesitantly brought up the subject. We already had discussed Iraq, the economy and freedom of the press. There was nothing left to do but try to stimulate conversation with a substantive topic.

“What’s the best way to cook corn?” I asked. The talk instantly became animated.

“Boil it for seven to 10 minutes.”

“No. Bring water to a boil, drop in the corn, turn off the heat and leave it for exactly five minutes.”

“Add milk and salt.”

“Milk? I don’t think so.”

You get the idea. One suggestion that proved exceptional came from a lifelong Californian who grew up near the beach. He said that his mother always soaked corn in seawater for an hour before grilling it in the husk. So I added a saltwater soak before grilling to my list of possibilities.

I consulted books. I asked cooking teachers. I even asked my father, who grew up in the rural Midwest. Everyone had an opinion, but in the end, I went to the experts to try to discern the truth.

My mother asked me why I paid $1 for two ears of corn at the Hollywood farmers market when I could have had five ears for a dollar at the supermarket near my house. I told her that was the going rate for information.

“The best way to cook corn is to drop it into boiling water and cook it for 10 to 15 minutes,” was the advice from a person who should know, Guadeloupe, a vendor at the Hollywood market.

“That’s actually too long,” countered Mark, who had just walked up to buy some corn. “We’ve been doing this every Sunday night for the past couple of weeks,” he said, gesturing to his friend, who was nodding vigorously. “That will dry it out. No more than seven to 10 minutes max. Sometimes five is enough. It depends on the size of the corn and how fresh it is.”

But then there was Santiago at the Underwood Family Farm stand. His advice was to forget the boiling water and the grill and toss corn in the microwave. “Put it in a plastic bag and microwave it for four or five minutes, or maybe seven minutes for a bunch. Fresh corn is sweet. You don’t need more than that.”

At the McGrath Family Farms stand, Paul was handing out baby corn in the husk that was so tiny, so tender, so sweet that it was delicious raw like a carrot stick, although at four for a dollar it was a little too pricey to be eaten like a carrot stick. Baby corn, he said, is perfect in cold salads. Standard-size corn does require some cooking, he added, but just enough to heat it through.

“Never overcook corn. The sugars turn to starch. Then it turns to mush. You may as well get creamed corn in a can,” Paul said, making a face. He recommended grilling corn. “Fold back the husk. Take off the silk and grill it.” He hadn’t heard of the seawater trick but supported it in theory.

His customer, Judy, a chef, added that she serves corn — baby or regulation size — with chili butter, which she makes by combining butter with a chopped chili and, maybe, cilantro or garlic.

These suggestions all sounded good to me, so I went home and started cooking. This is what I found.

• One medium ear of corn equals about 1/2 to 3/4 cup corn kernels. Two medium ears equal about 1 to 11/2 cups corn. Etc.

• Removing corn from the cob makes a big mess that even the dog can’t lick up properly. To avoid this, place a cutting board in the sink with the corn cob upright in the middle. Cut downward, and the corn and juice collect where they can easily be scooped (and cleaned) up.

• Corn that is overcooked has the withered look of those ‘50s movie stars who stayed in the sun too long before scientists told us it was unhealthy. The quickest way to spoil fresh corn is to overboil, overgrill, overanything. If the corn is truly fresh, it need only be heated through. The kernels are already sweet and tender. If it’s not truly fresh, we may as well be eating frozen.

To boil: Bring a pot of water to a boil. Drop in husked corn, turn off heat and let sit for 3 to 5 minutes. If corn was picked that day, you may not even need that long to heat it through.

To grill: Husk corn, brush with oil of choice (corn, canola, olive or toasted sesame) or melted butter and place on grill for about 10 minutes, turning often, until brown flecks appear on all sides but before the kernels start to collapse inward. Once they do that, the corn is overcooked.

To grill in aluminum foil: Husk corn, brush with melted butter, if desired, and place on grill for 15 to 20 minutes, turning often. This works fairly well but doesn’t seem like a good use of aluminum foil, which can be better applied to lining oven pans so they don’t have to be washed.

To grill in the husk (my personal favorite): Carefully pull back husks, remove silk, which tends to burn, and replace husks. Soak corn in husks in saltwater for 1 hour. Then grill for about 30 minutes, turning occasionally. This tastes vaguely like popcorn.

To microwave (my second choice for best method): Husk corn, run water over it, place it in a heavy-duty resealable plastic bag and zip almost shut. (Leave open a bit so steam can escape and bag doesn’t explode.) For 2 to 4 ears, microwave for 5 minutes. It probably will be perfect. If cooking more than 2 to 4 ears, add 2 minutes but make sure the bag doesn’t melt.

To oven roast: Husk corn, brush with oil of choice (corn, canola, olive or toasted sesame) or melted butter and place on baking sheet in a 500-degree oven, turning often, for 8 to 10 minutes or until brown flecks appear on all sides. This is actually more appropriate as a winter cooking method, because turning on the oven in August is counterproductive to good health and humor — but who cooks corn on the cob in winter?

So there you have it. The search for the perfect corn cooking method is pretty much as our mothers told us. Less is better, unless you’re talking about butter.

Corn and cheese chowder

4 slices bacon

1 tablespoon butter

1 small red bell pepper, cut in 3/4-inch dice

1 medium onion, chopped

2 teaspoons cumin

2 15-ounce cans chicken broth

3 small Yukon Gold potatoes, quartered, about 1½ cups

⅛ teaspoon white pepper

½ cup whipping cream

2 cups (about 3 ears) fresh corn

2 cups (about 8 ounces) shredded cheddar cheese

Salt

Fry bacon until crisp. Crumble bacon and set aside but reserve 1 tablespoon bacon grease in pan. Add butter, bell pepper and onion to pan and saute until softened, 8 to 10 minutes. Sprinkle in cumin and cook for a minute, stirring.

Add chicken broth, potatoes and white pepper and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Add cream and corn and bring to a boil. Turn off heat, stir in cheese and season to taste with salt. Serve when cheese is melted. Sprinkle with cooked bacon before serving. Makes 3 to 4 servings as an entree.

Goat cheese quesadillas with fresh corn salsa

Fresh corn salsa (recipe follows)

6 9-inch flour tortillas

1 8-ounce package shredded Monterey Jack cheese

1 8-ounce package shredded mozzarella cheese

1 5-ounce package goat cheese, crumbled

⅓ cup fresh basil, shredded

1 to 3 tablespoons corn or safflower oil

Make salsa and refrigerate until 20 minutes before serving. Can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.

Sprinkle each of 3 tortillas with ⅓ of Monterey jack, mozzarella and goat cheeses and shredded basil. Top each with one of the remaining 3 tortillas. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in skillet or griddle and fry quesadillas about 1 minute per side, or until just beginning to turn golden. (If frying one at a time, you will need to oil pan each time to achieve a golden color and will need more than 1 tablespoon oil.)

Alternately, quesadillas may be microwaved until cheeses melt, about 1 minute per quesadilla. Cut in quarters and serve immediately with fresh corn salsa. Makes 3 servings as an entree with salsa and a salad or 4 to 6 servings as an appetizer.

FRESH CORN SALSA:

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons corn or safflower oil

1 teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon salt

⅛ teaspoon cayenne

2 ears cooked corn (about 1¼ cups) (see note)

1 16-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed

¼ cup chopped red onion

¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped, plus a few cilantro leaves for garnish

In a small serving bowl, whisk together vinegar, oil, cumin, salt and cayenne until combined. Fold in corn, black beans, red onion and cilantro and serve with goat cheese quesadillas.

Garnish with cilantro leaves. Makes about 2½ cups.

Note: Corn for this recipe can be grilled, boiled, microwaved or roasted. See instructions above.

Grilled corn with garlic-chili butter

1 large clove garlic

1 small yellow chili, seeds and stem removed

1 stick (½ cup) butter, softened

⅛ teaspoon salt

6 ears corn, silk removed but husks left on

In food processor or blender, chop garlic and chili until finely minced. Add softened butter and salt and mix to combine. Spoon into serving container, cover tightly and refrigerate until 20 minutes before serving. Makes ½ cup.

To grill corn, remove husks, brush with oil of choice (corn, canola, olive or toasted sesame) or melted butter, and place on grill for about 10 minutes, turning often, until brown flecks appear on all sides. Or soak corn in husks in saltwater for one hour and grill, turning occasionally, for about 30 minutes or until brown flecks appear. Serve with garlic chili butter. Makes 3 to 6 servings.

Tabbouleh with grilled or roasted corn and mint

This side dish can become a light vegetarian entree for 2 or 3 if 1 cup crumbled feta cheese and ½ cup pitted and sliced Kalamata olives are added. Serve it on a bed of lettuce with pita bread on the side.

3 ears corn (about 2 cups kernels)

1 cup bulgur wheat

½ to 1 teaspoon salt

¼ cup fresh lemon juice

2 large cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup olive oil

2 sliced scallions, both white and green parts

½ cup fresh mint, packed

1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved and salted

Freshly ground black pepper

Grill corn or oven roast (see note). Cool, remove kernels and set aside.

In a bowl, combine bulgur with 1¼ cups boiling water. Let stand for 20 to 30 minutes, or until water is absorbed and bulgur is light and fluffy.

In another bowl, whisk together salt, lemon juice, garlic and oil. Pour over bulgur and toss to combine. Next, fold in scallion, mint, tomatoes and grilled or roasted corn. Season with lots of freshly ground pepper. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Makes 4 to 6 servings as a side dish.

Note: To grill corn, remove husks, brush with oil of choice (corn, canola, olive or toasted sesame) or melted butter and place on grill for about 10 minutes, turning often, or until brown flecks appear on all sides. Or soak corn in husks in saltwater for one hour and grill, turning occasionally, for about 30 minutes or until brown flecks appear.

To oven roast corn, remove husks, brush with oil of choice (corn, canola, olive or toasted sesame) or melted butter and place on baking sheet in 500-degree oven, turning often, for 10 to 12 minutes, or until brown flecks appear on all sides.

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