Time for fresh corn

Summer get-togethers like the Fourth of July usually involve lots of food. Grills take over for the season, giving stoves and ovens a much-needed break. One of the best summer foods to put on the grill is fresh corn. Corn is truly a-maize-ing (pun intended): not only can we eat the kernels in all sorts of preparations, we can make tamales from the husks, burn the cobs for fuel, feed animals with the stalks and make byproducts like corn oil and corn starch, whiskey and corn syrup. In the Midwest, “Knee-High by the Fourth of July” was our motto for measuring the growth of corn stalks in my family’s garden. Here’s how to “read” an ear of corn when buying at the market: Only buy corn that is still in the husks. Pull back the husks a little bit, to view the kernels: they should be in tight rows; if there are gaps between the rows, the corn is over-mature and may be more starchy than sweet. The kernels should go all the way up to the tips; if the tips have no kernels, the corn was picked too soon. Kernels should be plump and squirt white milk when poked with a fingernail. If the center of the kernel is sinking in, the corn is drying out and won’t be as sweet. As soon as it’s picked, an ear of corn starts converting its sugar to starch, losing its delicious sweetness. That’s why corn should be eaten right away when purchased, stored for no longer than a day or two if needed, and left in the husks until just before cooking. Adding a little sugar to the cooking water can help bring back some of the sweet taste that is lost during storage. Never use salt in the cooking water, as it will toughen the corn. Now that you are corn educated, it’s time to experiment.

Carrot, Corn and Ginger Relish

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Serve this with grilled meats, chicken or fish. Try on burgers or a bagel with cream cheese. Recipe adapted from Sunset magazine; makes about 3 cups.

4 cups ¼-inch cubed carrots

2 cups diced onions

1/4 cup minced fresh ginger

2 ears fresh corn, husks and silk removed

1-1/2 cups balsamic or rice vinegar

3/4 cup sugar

Combine carrots, onions and ginger in a 10×15-inch grill pan. Put pan on grill and cook, stirring, until vegetables have caramelized and are tender. Cook corn ears on grill, rotating frequently, until kernels begin to brown all over. Remover kernels from cobs when cool enough to handle. Scrape all vegetables into a 4- to 5-quart pan; add 1-1/2 cups water, the vinegar and sugar. Boil, uncovered, on stove or grill over high heat, stirring occasionally, until only about 1/2cup liquid remains. Watch closely to avoid scorching; stir more frequently as liquid reduces. Remove from heat, cool, then chill at least one day for flavors to mellow. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Relish will keep for up to a month.

Corn and Snap Pea Salad

In a half hour you can put together this colorful and crunchy salad. If using a grill, cook corn on the cobs, then remove kernels. Snap peas can also cook on the grill in a grill pan, stir-frying until browned. Recipe from Everyday Food magazine by Martha Stewart Living; makes 8 servings. Double everything if more servings needed.

2-1/2 cups fresh corn kernels (from 3 or 4 ears)

4 cups trimmed snap peas (1 pound)

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/3 cup loosely packed, thinly sliced fresh mint

1/4 cup thinly sliced scallions

2-1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1-1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot of boiling water, cook corn kernels and snap peas until crisp-tender, about 5 or 6 minutes. Alternately, you can cook corn and snap peas on a grill, turning frequently until starting to brown. Drain, then rinse under cold water and dry. Transfer to large serving container. Add remaining ingredients; season with salt and pepper to taste. Chill under ready to serve.

Double Corn and Green Chile Muffins

OK, so the oven is needed here, but these are too filled with fresh corn flavor to not be included. As a snack, on a buffet, or with soup and salad, these muffins can hold their own. Recipe from ‘Muffins’ by Elizabeth Alston; makes 12 muffins.

1-1/2 cups yellow corn meal

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 large eggs

1 cup sour cream

1/4 cup (a half stick) butter, melted

3 cups fresh corn kernels

4 ounces (1 cup) coarsely grated sharp cheddar cheese

1/4 cup chopped green chilies (fresh or canned)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line regular muffin cups with paper baking cups. In a large bowl, combine corn meal, flour, baking powder, salt and pepper; mix well. In a separate medium bowl, whisk eggs and sour cream, then whisk in the butter. Stir in corn, cheese and chilies. Pour wet mixture over dry ingredients; fold in with a rubber spatula until dry ingredients are moistened. Scoop batter into muffin cups and bake 25 to 30 minutes, until no longer moist in the centers. Let cool a few minutes before serving.

Fresh Tomato Corn Soup

This is a version of cool gazpacho that is great with crusty bread, or maybe the corn muffin recipe above. Recipe from Bon Appetit magazine; makes 4 full-bowl servings or 8 smaller servings in cups. Double up if you need more servings.

2 cups chopped ripe plum tomatoes

1-1/2 cups V8 vegetable juice (or similar)

1 cup fresh corn kernels

2 green onions, finely chopped

1/4 cup chopped green bell pepper

2 tablespoons finely shredded fresh basil (or 1 teaspoon dried, crumbled)

2 large garlic cloves, minced

Hot sauce of choice

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1/4 cup plain yogurt

In a large bowl, combine tomatoes and vegetable juice. Add corn, green onions, bell pepper, basil and garlic; blend well. Season to taste with hot sauce, then chill at least 15 minutes and up to 2 hours. Garnish each serving with a dollop of yogurt.