A visitor from the right or left coast, while driving through Iowa along Interstate 80, could be forgiven for believing that there is little else here in the Hawkeye state besides corn. A majority of the corn our bicoastal guest sees, however, is not food but feed, destined to be sold as commodity, then fed to the food, as it were, to fatten the livestock that become the center of the American plate.
On nearly every family farm, rare as those are becoming, one will still find sweet corn, and July is the time when it is reaching its peak. While the aforementioned hogfeed won’t be ready until harvest in October or November, the sweet corn will be at your farmers’ market this month. It has been an unusually cool spring, though, so it may not be until later in July when you see the truly great ears of delectable golden kernels.
No other new world food product, with the debatable exceptions of cocoa and the potato, has had such an impact on world food and the world economy as corn. While the Europeans first heard of corn from Columbus, it wasn’t until the 16th century when Hernán Cortés brought it back to his native Spain that it began to catch on there. Perhaps the best-known European use of corn is polenta, the northern Italian specialty made from whole-grain cornmeal.
Here in Iowa, though, while some restaurants occasionally serve polenta, it may be more commonly known as fried cornmeal mush. Give something a fancy name and you can sell it for more to more people. It is the same principle that gets folks to eat “calamari” who would never dream of eating squid.
But no matter what you call it, polenta or mush, it is one of thousands of ways corn has been used over the last five centuries to feed the exploding population of the western hemisphere. From bread to whiskey, soup to popcorn to syrup, corn is everywhere.
Perhaps the best way to enjoy it, though, is still straight off the cob, boiled in milk, or grilled in the husk. It is a delightful thing to see a small child gnawing on a buttery ear of sweet corn at an Iowa picnic in July.
Selecting the Best Ears
Here are a few pointers for choosing the best ears of corn.
Never buy corn that has already been shucked. Exposing the kernels to the air simply dries them and accelerates the conversion of sugars to starch that begins when the ear is harvested. Placing it on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic does not help.
Also, you need not peel back the husks on each ear of corn before you buy it at the farmers’ market. Feel the rows through the husk to ensure that they are even and fill out the cob. Store the corn, for not more than a day or two, in their husks and in the refrigerator.
When you’ve finished eating, save your corn cobs. They make a terrific stock for corn chowder. Alternatively, dogs love them.
To preserve more of the sugars, use a mixture of half water and half milk, enough to cover all the shucked ears of corn you want in a large pot. Place this over high heat with a dash of salt and bring to a boil, then remove from the heat and let stand, covered, about 15-20 minutes. The corn will turn out perfectly tender and delicious every time.
Corn’s appeal lies in its sugars, and the only thing better than sugar is caramelized sugar. That is what you are doing when you grill corn, caramelizing the sugar. Next time you are going to have the grill fired up, prepare your corn the day before. Trim off the stem, but leave the husks on the corn. Boil in the same manner as above, but then store in the cooking liquid in the refrigerator. The next day, 15 to 20 minutes before your other grilled items are done, place the corn around the edges of the fire. Turn frequently, but don’t worry about the husks burning. They are protecting and flavoring the corn as they burn. Remember that the time they will need to cook will vary according to the size and temperature of your particular grill.
Never be afraid to experiment or make mistakes. Experience is not merely the best teacher, it is the only teacher.
Kurt Michael Friese is co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay and serves on the Slow Food USA Board of Governors. He lives with his wife Kim in rural Johnson County. Questions and comments may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.