Summer Ears Gone By

Fresh ears of NJ-grown bicolor sweet corn.
White, yellow or bi-color, New Jersey is arguably as famous for its sweet corn as it is for its field-ripened tomatoes.

The best ears of corn have tender kernels full of milky juice, even after a bit of storage. Pick up some freshly gathered corn at your local market, cook up some now and the rest later, and you'll see that the older kernels are still-tender. This is what separates NJ-grown corn from the rest.

Why is Jersey corn so darn good? For one, the state’s ubiquitous clay loam provides the fertile, well-drained, moist soil that corn needs to develop the plump, delicious kernels we love.

Additionally, corn hybridization has resulted in four grades of corn: high-yield, old-fashioned tasting Sweet; sweeter, creamier, very tender Sugar-enhanced; doubly-sweet, tender, long-lasting Super Sweet; and crunchy, sweet-but-with-“more corn flavor” Triple Sweet.

Factor in the commercial growers’ preference for the Super Sweet corn hybrids that are also very slow to convert sugar to starch after harvest, and, Behold! Succulent corn that stays fabulously sweet, even with a week or two between farm and table.

Sweet corn appears at NJ farm stands and local farmer’s markets as early as mid June, thanks to the tireless efforts of some South Jersey growers. But for the most part, the NJ corn harvest season begins in early July and continues right through August and into September.

Warm days and warm nights, ample moisture, and successive crops for harvest usually means that local sweet corn is tasty, plentiful, and quite affordable during late summer.

Some Handy Tips for Handling Fresh Corn

Friendly little pollinator visiting my corn patch.
This 3.5" diameter, 8" long ear of corn yielded exactly 3/4 cup of delicious kernels.
Corn, ready for recipes. Or for your lorikeet's food bowl. Your choice.
Selecting. If you pick your own, sweet corn is ready when the kernels feel plump through the husk and the silks are drying and browning. If you’re picking from a pile, chose ears heavy for their size with green husks and plump kernels.

Depending on the cob’s diameter, an 8-10 inch ear yields 3/4 to 1 full cup of kernels. Buy an ear or two more than you think you need if you’re looking for a precise measurement, and save any extra kernels for future use.

No need to strip the husks back before purchase: chances are very good that fresh corn you buy locally is worm-free. Should you find a worm, do not panic! The worms and their surrounding damage will not harm you. Simply relocate the worm to the outdoors, preferably within the sight of a hungry robin. Trim off the damage bits on the ear with a sharp knife.

Storing. Store corn in the refrigerator and keep it in its husk. Cold air helps keep the sugars from turning to starch. If you’ve shucked more than you need, wrap it tightly in plastic: husked corn dries out pretty quickly.

Shucking. Pull the husks back and pick off as much silk as you can. You can also use a soft vegetable brush to gently remove any remaining silk. Save and dry the husks for crafting or making tamales.

Stripping. Use a bowl to catch the kernels. Stand the ear in the bowl, stalk side down (trim it flat, if necessary) and holding it from the top. Using a sharp paring knife, cut through the kernels (at about the 2/3 mark) with a gentle downward sawing motion.

Don't toss those cobs just yet! There is a secret stash of flavory milk lurking in that cob. My favorite extraction method is to simmer 2-3 stripped cobs and 3 cups water in a covered saucepan for 25 minutes. The result: a broth with corn flavor amped up to eleven (a fancy golden star if you get the reference) that's perfect as a stock substitute in corn-based soups. You can also steep cobs in the hot cooking liquid part of puddings or custards.

Freezing. Freshly-picked corn is the best candidate for freezing. First blanch corn on the cob for 4 minutes to inactivate the enzymes that cause changes in color, flavor, and nutrient value. Drop the ears in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process.

You can freeze blanched corn on or off the cob. We prefer to take it off the cob for space-saving reasons, because more freezer room = more varieties of frozen edibles. And fancy cocktail ice. Mmm, cocktails...but we digress.

Cooking. Of-the-moment corn is best gently cooked and eaten straight off the cob. Grilled corn on the cob, scantily clad in olive oil, a bit of salt and a sprinkle of chili powder is our oft-revisited idea of summer paradise. Accompanied by a tasty tropical cocktail, of course.

Enthusiasm can run high when corn is in season and freshly picked, so we allow for at least one ear of corn per enthusiast, and double (or triple) the amount in correlation to the degree of mania in evidence.

Beyond the cob, corn is very a versatile ingredient, equally happy center stage or counted among the chorus. Our favorite knife-and-fork corn dish is to serve corn "off the cob" as a versatile side. Briefly cooked in sweet butter and sprinkled with salt, this dish has all the appeal of corn on the cob without the need for extra napkins.

We also use corn to add a sweet note in salsas and salads; as a surprising add-in for ordinary pancakes; in quiches, chowders and saut├ęs. Even frozen sweets are not immune to corn's charm. Caramel Corn Ice Cream, anyone?

Hmmmmm...concocting a corn-based cocktail is now a Must-Do.

Corn “Off the Cob”

Serves 4 as a side

There are days when one wants to enjoy the taste of buttery fresh corn on the cob without the mess. Remove the cob, and Voila! a civilized side fit for King Midas (a sprinkling of chives is our way "to gild refined gold").
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 4 ears corn, kernels cut from cobs
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
Heat butter over medium heat until melted. Add corn and cook, stirring constantly until heated through, about 3 minutes (and up to 5, depending on freshness of corn). Off heat, stir in chives and salt; season with black pepper, to taste. Serve immediately.

Note: Leftovers, should they exist, can be reheated either on the cooktop or in the microwave without concern. (Leftovers also make excellent additions to salads, omelets, and soup.

Tips: Just like butter for corn on the cob, this recipe can be easily customized with fresh herbs and spices. Omit the chives, and add a teaspoon of your favorite ground spices or a tablespoon of fresh herbs.