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Corn Town

Although I’ll eat it if it’s in front of me, corn on the cob isn’t my favorite way to eat this super sweet summer treat. I like to shear the corn off the cob, squeeze out the “milk,” and use the cobs for stock (or even better, for dessert).

We hosted our first pop-up on September 20th, 2014, and though we didn’t tell anyone beforehand, the menu revolved around corn – fried hominy, panzanella with corn, corn risotto, pork and grits (which are made from…), and corn gelato.

Since it’s that time of year again here are a few alternatives for those looking for ideas beyond corn on the cob. These are meant to be ideas and guidelines, I don’t have any measurements, so feel free to get in touch with me if you have any questions – LR@blankplateboulder.com. Or start a dialogue in the comments, I’d love to hear your favorite corn use.

Boulder-specific special deal

Munson Farm at the Farmers’ Market in Boulder has an end-of-market-day deal: stuff your bag for $6. They provide a plastic shopping bag that expands as you stuff it, which they jovially encourage. I think I got 22 ears into it once. (And in case you’re interested, Bob Munson passed away recently.)

Quick tips

First, a tip for keeping husks under control. I use this most often when peeling carrots or potatoes.

Line your sink with newspaper...

Line your sink with newspaper…

...and you're ready for garbage or compost bin

…and you’re ready for garbage or compost bin

The best way I’ve found to free the corn from the cob is to use a small bowl that sits upside down in a large bowl, a trick I learned from Cooks Illustrated. After husking each ear you leave the stem end on as a handle. Rest the corn vertically on the upside down small bowl, then using a paring knife you slice down along the corn, stripping off the kernels, which land in the large bowl.

Oft-used quick corn cleaning tip

Oft-used quick corn cleaning tip

Try not to cut into the cob though no big deal if you do, just try not to do it again. Rotate slightly and repeat. After all the kernels are off use the back of your knife – the squarish dull end that’s opposite the sharp end, as if you were using the knife upside down – and squeegee the “milk” out of the cob so it joins the kernels in the bowl.

Squeegee corn "milk" off cob

Squeegee corn “milk” off cob; use back of knife and angle down to minimize splatter

Once you’ve done that with 22 ears or whatever you should have a nice sized bowl of raw corn and milk with an upside down bowl in the middle of it all. Get a spoon and try some, it’s delicious as it is right then and there. Also, if you have the gift of foresight you can spoon it into a freezer bag and use it for Christmas dinner – corn freezes well.

Butter

One step removed from eating raw corn is warming it up in a pan and stirring in some butter. How much butter? As much as you like. One time I was at a restaurant in New York City where I was sitting at the chef’s counter and I watched a cook scoop heated corn out of a pan into a serving dish. He passed it down the line and the next cook opened a drawer, grabbed a handful of shredded cheese and piled it high on the dish. He grabbed another handful and piled some more on – it was so high. A food runner took the dish to a table and as he passed behind me I noticed that all the cheese was gone. It hadn’t been cheese – it was frozen shredded butter.

Purée

Raw corn, frozen corn, buttered corn – let’s go one step further. I got this from Chef Kyle Mendenhall who served it at our pop-up featuring mushrooms and Michael Heim, it was so good I later asked him how I might recreate it. You have your raw corn in a bowl. You heat up a pan and sauté some garlic and shallots in butter until they’re soft. You add your corn and warm it up, then add a touch of cream – only enough so that the corn is laced through, the cream is for texture, not taste – and let it all simmer for a few minutes until the cream reduces and the contents of the pan have tightened up a bit. Purée all that in a Vitamix. That’s it. Chef used it as a base for pickled matsutake mushrooms with zucchini and squash blossoms. I used it the other night (and I didn’t have cream and the purée was still awesome) on a plate with ratatouille and crazy peppery arugula and some hanger steak. The work-to-payoff ratio doesn’t get much better than in this dish.

Corn Stock

I love love love corn stock. After you’ve harvested all your kernels off your cobs you set your bowl of raw corn aside, get out a big knife, a decent sized pot, and a cutting board. Take a cob, cut off the “handle” and discard (in your compost bin of course), cut the cob into two or three pieces and put those in the pot. Do that with all 22 of your cobs and cover them with water; simmer. I suppose you could add some aromatic veggies as they do in this New York Times recipe but I use only cobs and it comes out juuuust fine. Essence of corn, in liquid form. (It just occurred to me that clarifying the corn stock, as you would with chicken consommé, would be fun to try. Maybe this weekend.) After a half hour, strain your stock.

What does one do with corn stock? Many things, but my go-to is risotto, since risotto can only be as good as the stock used to make it. Also, once you know how to make risotto it’s a pretty easy anytime dish, I most recently made it spur of the moment on a Monday night. Mine was zucchini risotto made with chicken stock because I had some in the fridge, but I’ve made it a dozen times with corn stock. If you need detailed instructions or measurements, shoot me an email or leave a comment below, or use the Times’ link above (I haven’t made that recipe, I found it while poking around to see what other people had to say about corn stock) but for those of you with a passing familiarity with risotto cookery, here’s my quick take.

Zucchini and corn risotto

Start with two medium or one large zucchini. Take half the zucchini and cut it into half inch dice. Sauté in extra virgin olive oil over medium heat in your risotto pot. While the zucchini is cooking finely chop a medium sized onion and add it to the pot after the zucchini is soft. Add a large pinch of salt. (The zucchini will more or less disintegrate into the finished risotto. It’s meant to be part of the soffritto — the flavor base of the risotto, which is often just onion.)

When the onion is translucent add a cup of risotto rice to the pot and toast it. Let it sit for several seconds, stir, sit, stir. If you listen closely you can hear it toasting. After a minute add a few glugs of dry unoaked white wine, stir, and let this reduce until it’s nearly gone but don’t let the pot get dry. Begin adding your corn stock – add enough to just cover the rice, then stir, then relax. Add a couple pinches salt. The stock and rice should be barely barely simmering. Stir. Wait. Stir. Wait. When the rice has absorbed most of the stock, add more stock. You will continue this process until the rice has reached doneness.

(An aside: I recently listened to a podcast with Tyler Florence in which he was talking about some new cookbook of his in which he challenges various cooking conventions. In this book he makes a risotto by putting all the rice and stock in a pot at once and he says it comes out perfect. I don’t know anything about Tyler Florence and I’m not sure how I came across this podcast but it’s an interesting idea.)

Taste is knowledge.

Make sure to taste a grain or two of rice at each stage along the way so you have an experience of the progression towards properly cooked risotto. The end result we’re going for is rice that’s cooked through yet still has structural integrity in the form of some firm, unique grains. Not starchy, definitely not crunchy, and hopefully not mushy (overcooked). Firm, unique grains. Because of variations of kinds of rice and freshness, the only way you’ll ever get your timing down is if you continually taste.

Back to the risotto…

During the downtimes between stirrings take your remaining zucchini and cut it into half- or quarter-moons about a quarter inch thick. When the rice is still a bit al dente but nearing perfection, add the zucchini to the pot. The zucchini will exude some moisture which you should take into account when deciding how much more stock to add, you may not need to add any more. Also, if you have any raw corn you should add as much as you like to the pot at this time as well. It would be difficult to add too much.

Finishing up

I like my risotto not too liquidy and not too tight. I don’t like it gloppy at all and if I spoon it onto a plate it should settle flat without me pushing it down. In restaurants I sometimes see cooks slapping the bottom of a plate to get a mound of risotto to flatten out; I’m not a fan of that style at all. It still tastes good — or even great — but it doesn’t seem quite right to me. I’m not sure why, other than that food is intensely personal and somewhere along the way (reading Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking) I was impressed with an idea of what risotto should be like. I’m sure that if you make risotto regularly you’ll figure out what’s right for you.

When the rice is just shy of properly cooked and the risotto is still a tad — just a tad — soupy, add about a cup of grated Parmigiano. Stir. Taste. How is it? If it’s not awesome you probably need more cheese. Add more, stir, taste, repeat as necessary. Once it tastes awesome add five to ten leaves of torn basil. Spoon your risotto onto plates. Add some more fresh grated Parm and some cracked pepper if that’s your thing, then get your risotto in front of whomever’s eating it ASAP.

For dessert: Corn gelato

Not much to say here except that it’s delicious, I first had it at a place called Cones on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. Find your favorite basic gelato recipe and simmer your nude corn cobs (and some raw corn too if you have extra) in the milk you’ll be using for the gelato. Strain and proceed. Keep in mind that some of the cream will evaporate as it simmers so you need more than the recipe calls for. Also, if you have corn to spare you can simmer it raw with the cobs for even more corn flavor.

Feedback is welcome!

I hope you got at least one new idea from this exposition of corn. Again, feel free to hit me up with any questions, or to let me know you got something out of this, or to let me know that it’s lame that there aren’t any photos, or for any reason at all.

Cheers!

L.R.