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Cooking And Eating A Favorite Maryland Crop To Find The Corn Ultimatum

Okan Arabacioglu

By Henry Hong | Posted 8/8/2007

Hello, my name is Henry, and I am a rotator. I rotate because it offers superior surface butter retention and ergonomics when compared to the competing typewriter method. I regard advocates of the "random patch" and "kernel by kernel" techniques as fringe and possibly disturbed. How do you eat your corn on the cob?

I'll forego the usual poetic musings on the summer-corn-Maryland thing, but our connection to corn is undeniable. The word "corn" can actually refer to any cereal crop, and derives from the Old English word for grain (including grains of salt, thus "corned" beef). Here in the U.S., corn refers specifically to maize, a once humble indigenous grass that sadly has become a viciously politicized commodity and environmental transgressor in recent times. On the plus side, the corn we eat today is the sweetest, most delicious corn ever to have existed on Earth.

Sweet corn is what we eat on the cob, canned, or frozen, and originated from a felicitous random mutation of the original wild grass. The first records of standard sweet corn date back to 1779. Called "papoon", this variety was a gift to early settlers from the Iroquois nation in what is now Pennsylvania. Local favorite "Silver Queen"--although advertised all over the place, technically it is never grown anymore because modern strains are so much sweeter--is a standard sweet corn that's been around for more than 50 years. Manipulation of genes related to enhancing or preserving sweetness has resulted in three additional varieties: sugar enhanced (sweeter), supersweet (sweetest), and synergistic (combo platter on each cob). These are more difficult to grow and more perishable, however.

Sweet corn is generally eaten immature, when its sugars have not yet converted into starch. If left on the stalk to mature, the kernels become dry and hard, and at this stage the corn is used for seed or ground into flour or meal. If these dry kernels are cooked--in oil, say--they expand in size and you get corn nuts. Certain types of corn have especially hard, dense kernels that develop immense internal pressure when heated, culminating in the familiar explosions that compel us to haul ass to the microwave.

Sugars begin transforming into starch immediately after corn is picked and as it is heated, so acquiring fresh corn and optimizing cooking time is critical. A common practice is to pull back the husk to inspect the tip of the cob, but this only reveals insect damage or extreme age, not necessarily freshness. I prefer to check the stalk ends for moistness, and to make sure that the exposed filaments of silk at the tip are pliant and light-colored. I shun pre-husked corn because these indicators have been removed, at extra cost no less. Farmers' markets and roadside stands are the best bets for fresh corn, since it will most likely have been harvested the night before.

When I was a kid, my grandmother would boil corn on the cob for a very long time, until the kernels were pruny and deep yellow. It was rubbery, slightly gluey, and produced massive amounts of intratooth debris, but possessed rich mouth-filling starchiness. Perhaps this was how corn was cooked in Korea before sweet hybrid varieties were available, and while it definitely wasn't sweet, it did possess a flavor we Koreans call go soo heh--a certain faint sweetness sometimes present in starches and meats. Supersweet corn today can contain up to 40 percent sugar--double that of standard sweet varieties--and we're talking sucrose, straight table sugar, making it more candy than vegetable.

The goal then is to preserve as much of the sugar as possible while cooking it enough to give the kernels some texture and richness. In order to determine optimum cooking time, I acquired three varieties of corn: White Out, Sky King, and the awesomely named Xtra-Tender 372A. All are standard sweet corn, the only type available at test time (early July). Supersweet varieties require planting in warmer soil, and are thus not available until August. I chose to boil in water to ensure constant temperature, spinning the ears occasionally to cook all sides, and tasted the corn raw, cooked after 30 seconds, one minute, two minutes, and five minutes.

The raw corn and the two-minute corn were surprisingly similar and subpar, with only moderate sweetness. The raw corn also had slight chalkiness, a trait shared by the 30-second corn, which was sweeter and bursting with juice, but one-dimensional. The five-minute corn had nice resilience and fuller flavor, but was significantly less sweet and bordered on gummy. Around one minute seems to be the money zone, at least for standard sweet corn, yielding the most sweetness and good texture. Of the three varieties, early dark horse Xtra-Tender 372A was the clear winner by a consensus of all three tasters, described by one as "fucking amazing." It's hard to imagine corn getting sweeter than XT3, which had bright fruity sweetness with a background note of honey, and nice round mouthfeel. This variety is sold by Richfield Farm at the downtown farmers' market.

There are of course numerous ways to cook corn on the cob, like the amazing deep-fried (!) corn that I had at a catfish joint in Mississippi. Grilling is convenient for cookouts, imparts smokiness, and produces nice browning (which in this case can correctly be called caramelization), but can scorch unprotected kernels. An easy way to avoid this is to rub shucked ears with butter, salt, and wrap in foil before grilling. My method is a pain in the ass but more impressive--shuck the corn of its inner husk and silk, leaving the outer husk as a wrapper. Butter, salt, then gather the ends of the husk and tie with a thin strip of husk. Other spices can be used as well, such as chili powder and cumin, as in the Mexican treat elote. But as always, I believe when experiencing truly good food, less is more.

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