Photo: Oxmoor House
CHOOSING: Look for green, moist husks that cling tightly to the corn. Deep brown silk tips or ends mean it’s ripe, but the whole silk shouldn’t be dried up. To check, peel the husk slightly, and check the top row of kernels for plumpness and density. The ultimate test is to pierce a kernel with your fingernail. If it is milky, it’s just right.
STORING: As soon as it’s picked, the flavor of corn changes. The sugars immediately begin turning to starch. If possible, shop for same-day harvests in local markets to get the highest sugar content and peak of perfection. If you can’t eat the corn immediately, store it in the refrigerator with the husks intact, and eat within two days of purchasing for the best taste. Don’t shuck until you’re ready to use.
GROWING: Plant corn after the danger of frost has passed in a well-drained location that receives a minimum of six to eight hours of sun a day. Although it’s tempting to plant early to get that first ear of sweet corn, resist the urge. Corn doesn’t germinate well or grow very fast when the soil is cold. It is better to wait a week or two after the last frost, when the soil has warmed, planting seeds about 1 inch deep.
Sow seeds in blocks (several rows together); instead of one 20-foot row, plant four 5-foot rows for easier pollination by wind. This improves pollination so you won’t find gaps in the rows of kernels on your cob. Water weekly to ensure your corn doesn’t dry out on the stalk before it’s time to harvest. Corn matures in 60 to 100 days, depending on the variety, and should be ready to be picked about 20 days after the first silk strands appear. Not every ear in the row will be ready at the same time.
"Raise less corn and more hell," Populist Mary Elizabeth Lease is credited with exhorting Kansas farmers, thus vocalizing what would be the rallying cry for dozens of grass-roots politicians in the 19th and 20th centuries. But maybe these days the grain itself is taking the dare. If you're accustomed to thinking of this ancient American staple as about as exciting as your grandfather's beige sedan, you're in for a shuck.
Because corn brings more to the table than we of recent generations may have been lulled into believing. The main food of the Maya isn't just the stuff covered with gooey cream in cans, or frozen in little supermarket packages. It's best fresh on -- or off―the cob. May to September is prime time for the two most popular varieties: white corn, which has smaller, sweeter kernels, and yellow corn, with its larger, fuller-flavored kernels. We're not exaggerating the "fresh" part―as soon as it's picked, the sugar in corn gradually begins to convert to starch, so it becomes less sweet. Choose ears with bright green, snugly fitting husks, golden brown silk, plump kernels that come up to the ears' end in tightly spaced rows.
After you've picked through the pile for the cream of the corn crop, what do you do with them? Sure, you can strip them down and toss them in a boiling pot. But why not try something a little more creative? Corn's the food of the gods―it can take it. Grill it up Cajun, North African, or Jerk, or try it off the cob in a salad, or sherbet―that's right, the sweet stuff. Corn may be a staple, but it's far from boring. These recipes reveal its wilder side. –Rod Davis