Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Let's Get Corny!


Aahh corn! It is, for me, the quintessential summer food. More so than any other fruit or vegetable that abound at this time of the year. Even... gasp... tomatoes -don't get me wrong: I love tomatoes; but I grow my own from seed so I basically  live, breathe and dream tomatoes from March until October. Corn, on the other hand, is a marvel that I impatiently wait for all of June and most of July. It just doesn't feel like summer unless I've sat down to shuck a couple dozens ears.

Corn's high sugar content and über-presence in our daily lives has led to its bad press, especially because of high fructose corn syrup, but eaten as a vegetable or a grain, corn can be a very healthy food. Corn on the cob is the most common way to go, with butter, salt and pepper as condiments.  Try spicing things up with some fresh, chopped herbs and garlic mixed into the butter, or try soy sauce instead of salt.

Fresh corn should be eaten the day it was purchased: its sugar content drops quickly after harvest. If you must, keep any uneaten, un-husked corn at room temperature for a day. If you cannot eat the corn the following day, cook it, cut off the kernels and freeze it. Corn's freshness is not just a matter of taste - although it is a very big concern- the more time elapses between harvest and cooking, the more likely each kernel will go into 'storage' mode: its sugars change into starch, its skin toughens and begins to dry out. Cooked the day it is picked, an ear of corn will take about 5-7 minutes in boiling water, or 10 minutes (5 minutes on each side) on the barbecue. Older ears can take anywhere upwards of 15 minutes to become tender, and will not be crisp. One also gets all those bits stuck in one's teeth...

Should your taste buds become a little jaded, or if you've bought more corn than you can eat in one sitting, there are other ways to enjoy its tender crispness: corn pancake; corn bread; and soups are but a few examples. Later in the year, succotash is a true blue North American comfort food, but in the full swing of mid-summer, corn chowder is probably more appropriate. It hasn't exactly been soup weather, what with the dry, hot days and forest fires out West (I do wish I could send a few of our rain clouds out your way), and the muggy heat in the East, but chowder is -for some reason- very much a summer fare. It must because chowders are often associated with seafoods, most of which are in season in the summer.

There are few hard and fast rules for making chowder: it is usually thickened with flour; contains milk or cream; and usually is garnished with potatoes, carrots and celery. But rules are made to be broken! Chowders are a great excuse to clean out your fridge: a chunky, almost stew-like soup with a creamy-rich texture imparted, but not necessarily so, by cream or milk and/or a roux (butter and flour mixture).


Corn chowder can be made with fresh, frozen or left-over cooked corn (or even canned creamed corn, if you must! My mum always made corn soup with canned creamed corn and condensed milk... oh, the memories!), but you should try it with fresh-picked corn at least once in your life: the difference is astounding! The texture and flavour are completely different from anything else. With both the fresh and left-over corn, you will need to remove the kernels from the cob. To do so, use a sharp chef's knife (not a tiny paring knife): lay the corn flat on a cutting board and hold it down with one hand; with the other, slice off the kernels as close to the cob as possible without actually cutting into the cob; keep rolling the ear around, until all the kernels are removed. Then, with the back of the knife, scrape the cob to remove every last bit of corn flesh: this part can get really messy, but it is well worth it; the resulting mush is creamed corn, and will add oomph to your chowder.


I literally cleaned out my vegetable drawer to make this batch of corn chowder, so the following list of ingredients is just a suggestion. You should adapt your chowder to whatever vegetables you have in your fridge, or happen to bring back from the market with the corn. I like adding a chipotle to the chowder for a little zing and to cut through the corn's sweetness. If you want a vegan version of this chowder, simply use water for the liquid (no need for stock since the vegetables contribute a lot of flavour) and cut out the butter.


Summer Corn Chowder
Makes enough to feed an army of 6


6 ears of corn
3 new onions
6 cloves garlic
1 yellow summer squash
3 baby turnips
1 handful green beans
1 red pepper
1 purple pepper
6 sun-dried tomato halves
1 chipotle chilli, optional
enough water,  milk, or a combination thereof
5 sprigs of fresh thyme or 2 generous pinch dried
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper
1 Tbs each butter and oil
cream, optional


Remove the corn kernels from the cob, set aside.
Crush the garlic, and roughly chop. Finely mince the chipotle, if using. Set aside.
Chop all other vegetables into chunks of more or less the same size: 1cm (½") cubes are a good size.
If you are using new onions, keep the greens separate from the bulb cubes, they will serve as garnish.
In a good sized pot, melt the butter and oil. Add the onion, garlic, thyme and bay leaf. Cook over medium heat until the onions are cooked through and transluscent.
Add each vegetable one at a time to the pot, letting it sizzle in the fat and juices before adding the next vegetable.
Once all the vegetables are in the pot,  add enough water and/or milk to cover, and bring up to a gentle simmer.
The chowder is ready after about 5 minutes of simmering, but you can let it cook longer if you prefer your vegetables to be meltingly soft.
If you want, you can blend a third of the soup for a thicker, creamier chowder.
Add a splash of cream, if using, and serve with chopped onion greens.


If it's too hot for a hot chowder, it is also delicious chilled.

Bon app'!



3 comments:

  1. Is there any nutritional benefit to steaming corn rather than boiling it, the way one would a green vegetable?

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  2. Good question... I'm not sure. The problem with boiling vegetables is that it can lead to the leaching out of nutrients. In some cases - i.e. wild vegetables - this leaching is necessary to rid the vegetable of toxins, in others, quite unnecessary.
    However, in the case of corn, I find that it spends so little time in the water anyway (barely 5 minutes if it's fresh picked) that it probably makes little difference. In fact, the last time I tried steaming corn, it took much longer to cook than boiling it, so I think the nutritional advantages of steaming gets cancelled out.
    Either way, if you really want to reap the full benefit of cooking vegetables in or out of water, just drink the cooking water! Use the liquid as a stock, or do as my parents: drink it straight out of the pot.

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  3. I found some organic corn in the market a few days ago. (It's very hard to grow corn organically on a commercial scale, as I'm sure you know.) Delicious!

    And if you and your readers will permit a brief Montreal wildlife report to accompany this brief market report, today on the bike path the strangest thing: not the usual groundhog skittering across my path, but a . . . wait for it . . . great, huge, lumbering snapping turtle. Think shell the size of a medium/large pizza, with a neck as thick as my forearm. Amazing!

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