For me there is no greater touchstone of summer than a mountain of local corn on display, and I find myself drawn to it no matter my retail mission. Invariably, I join other shoppers in the ritual where each of us acts as though we alone know what it takes to choose the most succulent ears.
Runts get thrown back onto the pile. Fat, bright ears pass on to the next level of inspection in which enough of the husk is pulled back to reveal whether or not the cob and kernels are well formed and blemish-free. (Some experts suggest smelling the exposed cob, which should have an aroma that is more corny than grassy green.)
The final test: Plunging the tip of a key into a kernel to make sure its liquid is sweet and white, with the consistency of nonfat milk.
As I walk away with my bag of well-vetted specimens, the thought always passes through my mind how happy my partner will be to have corn on the cob for dinner. His favorite. The next thought is, what else can I do with it? Because of its dual personalities as a vegetable and a grain with sweet and savory properties, corn is a chefs dream. Thats why it shows up on every part of restaurant menus, soup to dessert.
Ive done corn cakes (that was 20 years ago; Johnnycakes are a trending new dish in hip restaurants today), corn relishes, chowders, soups. Ive fried corn, sautéed it and baked it. Ive rolled a roasted carrot covered with herbed goat cheese in it to resemble corn on the cob.
Yet chefs still manage to devise fresh approaches. At Fiola restaurant in Washington, D.C., Fabio Trabocchi makes a lush corn gazpacho and pairs it with delicate Maryland blue crabmeat, while his pastry chef, Tom Wellings, churns silken corn ice cream.
Here, I tried my own spin on the summer staple.
The idea of using cereal to infuse milk came from Christina Tosis Momofuku Milk Bar Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, 2011). Use the best-quality milk from a reputable creamery.
Use low-fat milk if you must, but the result will be much less rich.
Make ahead: The corn milk can be made in advance and can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.
1 (12-ounces) can evaporated milk
4 cups Corn Pops cereal
1 cup freeze-dried corn (see headnote)
1 cup fresh corn kernels, from 1 or 2 ears of corn
2 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 1/2 cups cold, whole milk
Heat the evaporated milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat until small bubbles form around the inside of the pan. Place the cereal, freeze-dried corn, fresh corn, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Add the hot evaporated milk and process to a smooth purée.
Transfer the purée to a large bowl and stir in the milk. Refrigerate the mixture and let it steep for an hour, stirring occasionally. Line a fine-mesh strainer with cheesecloth and pour the mixture through the strainer into a medium bowl, using a rubber spatula to lightly press on the solids to extract as much milk as possible. (Do not force the solids through the strainer.) Transfer the milk to a pitcher (discard the solids) and refrigerate until ready to use. Makes 4 cups.
Corn, Haricots Verts and Goat Cheese Salad with Walnuts
Walnut oil is a sophisticated flavor addition to this bright, easy-to-prepare summer salad. Its beautiful on the plate; or spoon it into a radicchio cup for more visual interest.
Make ahead: The salad should be made several hours in advance. It can be made a day ahead, but it will lose some of its brightness.
2 cups sweet corn kernels (from 2 large ears)
8 ounces haricots verts, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 cup diced red pepper ( 1/4 of a large red bell pepper)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, toasted, plus 1/4 cup for garnish (see note)
1 small shallot, minced (2 tablespoons)
3 tablespoons champagne vinegar
3 tablespoons walnut oil, plus more for drizzling
2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 large basil leaves, stacked, rolled and cut into thin strips (chiffonade)
1 (8-ounce) log goat cheese, cut into 8 (1-ounce) medallions
Have ready a large bowl of ice water. Boil a pot of water. Place the corn in a handleless strainer that fits into the pot. Plunge the strainer into the boiling water and cook for 2 minutes. Remove the strainer and plunge it into the ice water for several seconds, until the corn has cooled. Transfer the corn to a large bowl.
Place the haricots verts in the strainer and cook them as you did the corn, but for 3 minutes, until they are just barely al dente and still bright green. Cool the beans in the ice water, then add them to the corn.
Add the red pepper, 1/2 cup of walnuts, shallot, vinegar, 3 tablespoons of walnut oil, mustard, salt, pepper and basil to the corn. Stir to combine well. Refrigerate the salad for a few hours to allow the flavors to meld.
To serve, mound 1/2 cup of corn salad on each plate and rest a medallion of goat cheese in the center. Top the cheese with toasted walnuts and a drizzle of walnut oil.
Note: To toast nuts, place them in a small sauté pan or skillet and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, for several minutes, until they are lightly browned. Makes 8 servings.
Buckwheat Corn Bread
Buckwheat flour gives this corn bread nutty undertones, and its brown specks lend visual appeal. Pouring the batter into a hot skillet before baking ensures that you will have crunchy edges: the best part of a warm piece of corn bread.
Make ahead: The corn bread can be made a day ahead and warmed in the oven, but it is at its best served fresh from the oven.
1 1/2 cups stone-ground yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup stone-ground buckwheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped ( 1/2 cup)
1 small jalapeño or serrano pepper, stemmed, seeded then finely chopped (2 tablespoons)
1 cup fresh sweet corn kernels (from 2 large ears; may use defrosted frozen corn)
2 large eggs, beaten
1 3/4 cups low-fat buttermilk
2 tablespoons rendered turkey fat (may substitute chicken or duck fat or unsalted butter)
2 tablespoons rendered bacon fat (may substitute turkey, chicken or duck fat or unsalted butter)
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Stir together the cornmeal, buckwheat flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, onion, jalapeño and corn in a large mixing bowl until thoroughly combined.
Combine the eggs and buttermilk in a medium mixing bowl. Melt a tablespoon each of turkey fat and bacon fat together and stir into the milk mixture.
Heat the remaining tablespoons of turkey fat and bacon fat in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over high heat until the oil just begins to smoke.
While the pan is heating, add the buttermilk mixture to the cornmeal mixture, stirring just until combined. Pour into the hot skillet; a crust should form immediately. Cook for a minute on the stove top, then transfer to the oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow the corn bread to rest for 10 minutes before serving. Makes 12 servings.
Quick Corn Gratin
Prepared pesto is easy to find in grocery stores these days, so making this gratin is a cinch. The oil from the pesto combines with the milk and flour to make a white sauce during baking, thus saving a big step.
Make ahead: The gratin can be assembled the day before, but add the cornflake topping just before baking so it doesnt get soggy.
3 cups corn kernels (3 large ears)
1 cup milk
1/4 cup pesto
2 tablespoons Wondra flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup grated Gruyere cheese (3 ounces)
1/2 cup coarsely crushed cornflakes
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Stir the corn, milk, pesto, flour, salt and pepper together in a large bowl until well combined. Pour into a gratin dish and cover with the grated cheese and cornflake crumbs. Place the gratin dish on a rimmed baking sheet lined with foil and bake for 45 minutes, until nicely browned and bubbling. Let the gratin rest for 10 minutes before serving. Makes 6 servings.
Corn Caramel Custard
Corn milk infuses this version of caramel custard with concentrated corn flavor, reinforced by a crispy, freeze-dried corn garnish. Served with berries, its a perfect summertime dessert.
To make caramel, it is essential to use a good-quality, heavy-bottomed pan that conducts heat evenly and well. That allows you to cook the sugar without water over high heat until it caramelizes enough to melt any still-crystallized sugar quickly.
Make ahead: The custard can be made a day or two in advance.
1/2 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
3 large eggs
2 cups corn milk (see related recipe)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons freeze-dried corn kernels, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Have ready six 6-ounce custard cups and a heavy-bottomed saucepan just large enough to accommodate a half-cup of sugar spread into a thin, even layer. Add 1/2 cup of sugar to the pan, place over high heat and let the sugar cook, not stirring it at all, until it begins to melt first into a clear syrup and then into a light brown one. This will take 3 or 4 minutes. After roughly half of the sugar is brown and clear (most likely around the outside edge), it is safe to gently stir the remaining white sugar crystals into the caramelized sugar. The white sugar will melt immediately into the caramel. (Use a long-handled, stainless-steel spoon to do this.)
Remove the pan from the heat and stir the caramel until it is dark amber in color and completely clear. Working quickly, spoon a generous tablespoon of the caramel into the bottom of a custard cup. Holding the cup by its rim, swirl the caramel so it comes up the sides of the cup a half-inch or so. Repeat with all of the cups. If the caramel in the pan becomes too thick to spoon easily, warm it for a few seconds to loosen it up.
Beat the eggs in a large mixing bowl until they are thoroughly combined. Put a kettle of water on to boil.
Combine the corn milk, the remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar and the salt in a medium saucepan over medium heat and cook until small bubbles form around the edge of the pan. Stir to make sure the sugar is dissolved.
Use a wire whisk to slowly stir the hot milk into the beaten eggs, then add the vanilla and stir to combine. Strain the custard through a fine-mesh strainer into a pitcher. Divide the custard evenly among the six caramel-lined custard cups.
Place 5 of the cups in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, leaving room for the sixth. Pull the rack of the oven out, place the baking dish on it and pour boiling water into the dish, in the space where the sixth custard cup would go. Add enough water to come up one-third of the way up the sides of the cups. Place the remaining custard cup in the pan and slowly push the rack in. Bake for 30 minutes or until the custard barely quivers when jostled slightly and doesnt seem liquid. (The tip of a knife inserted into the center should come out clean.) Transfer the cups from the water bath to a wire rack and cool them completely. Refrigerate the cooled custards for several hours to set them.
To serve, run a thin-bladed paring knife around the edge of each custard until liquid caramel seeps through to the top. Invert the custards onto dessert plates and scrape any caramel left in the cup onto the top of the custards. Top each custard with freeze-dried corn kernels and garnish with a few fresh berries on the plate. Makes 6 servings.