How to cut and caramelize the kernels to set the stage for unlimited flavor combinations
Right about now is when my cooking tends to get a little repetitive, to be honest. I love tomatoes and I love fresh corn, and for the brief time when the two are lying around in piles, I can’t help but just deal with them constantly. So if you were coming to my house for dinner, you might, despite your good graces, find yourself saying, “Oh, great! Pan-roasted corn … again…” And, well, I wouldn’t blame you.
But most likely you haven’t come to my house lately, so you’re not sick of this stuff yet. And hey, it’s good. Fresh sweet corn is wonderful just boiled, of course, but kernels cut from the cob, sautéed in infused fat until they caramelize, is on another order of pleasure. Their texture softens, but they keep their unique, bursting snap, and a few kernels shrivel to a satisfying chewiness. Their simple sugars darken and grow more complex, and corn’s naturally sweet, nutty, buttery flavors form a lovely backdrop for unlimited flavor combinations.
See, one of corn’s greatest charms is how well it plays with others. With those sugars, that vegetal freshness and a secret, subtle umami, it’s like the little black dress of vegetables. (The little yellow sundress? You know what I mean.) Just off the top of my head, here are a few of my favorite corn friends: tomatoes (of course), garlic, butter, scallions, salami or other cured sausages, cured hams, Parmesan or any other hard cheese — um, OK, soft cheeses too — basil, thyme, mint, tarragon, olives, olive oil, chiles, coriander, cumin, black pepper and other warm spices, anchovies, fish sauce, soy sauce, ginger, pine nuts… OK, probably that’s enough to make a point.
When putting together a dish, here’s a rough framework I like to follow:
- Infuse butter or oil with something tasty (like garlic) over a nice low heat for a few minutes, or render out fat from bacon, salumi or other manner of cured meat. (There’s a lot of overlap between this step and the next one.)
- In all that goodness, slowly soften your tough, foundational aromatics, like onion, ginger, etc. (or toast your spices).
- Turn the heat up to high. Now you’re really going to start this party. When the stuff in the pan is sizzling in a serious way, add the corn kernels, toss and stir.
- Toss the corn until you start noticing a thin glaze of sugars browning at the bottom. This is when you season with salt, pepper, or something like soy sauce or fish sauce. Stir that caramel up back into the corn, and keep going until it feels like the browning is getting ahead of you.
- Add some water or stock — animal, vegetable or miracle — (OK, are you ready for a recipe for corn stock? Take the cobs you cut the corn from. Cover with water. Bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer, and cook for 20 minutes. Strain. Done.) You don’t need a whole lot here, just enough to dissolve all the tasty browned bits and, if you’d like, to give you a little bit of a sauce. A chopped or puréed tomato also works beautifully for this.
- Now cook it all until the kernels are soft enough to your taste, and finish it with a pat of butter, herbs, cheese, nuts, garnishes or however you’d like.
So that’s it. Sorry, in my verbosity, I’m sure it reads a lot more complicated than it really is. But it’s just a quick and infinitely variable way to feature the good cob. I often toss it with pasta, or use it as a bed to lay a grilled something or other on top, or, as in the recipe below, just use it to top a thick slice of toasted bread and call it a light supper.
Oh, and if you’ve never taken the kernels off a corncob before, it’s simple. Some daredevils like to hold the ears up in their hands, but I lay them, shucked, on my cutting board. Using the length of the knife, slice off a “side” of the kernels. Now lay the cob on the flat side, and slice off another swath of kernels. Don’t sweat it if you’re not getting all the kernels off, especially since the ear tapers. Once you’ve gone all the way around the ear, pick it up in your hand like you’re holding a baton and set the blade of your knife in the cob, as if you were going to chop it. Angle the blade slightly away from you and scrape all the way down the length of the cob; what comes out should be the rest of the kernels and what they call the corn “milk.” That stuff is tasty.
Or, you can follow Salon’s art genius DG Strong’s illustrated method, which involves brilliance and bourbon. (Click on the picture in his post for an enlarged version.)
The other day, I was in an old-school, Brits-just-discovering-curry mood, and whipped up this little baby.
Pan-roasted curry corn
Serves 3 as a light entrée; 6 as an appetizer
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon curry powder
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 large ears of corn, de-kernelized
- Salt, to taste (curry might have salt already)
- Chicken or vegetable or corncob stock or water
- 1 bunch spinach, washed, dried and roughly chopped
- 4 ounces sharp Cheddar, thinly sliced or shredded
- 3 large, thick slices of good, crusty bread, toasted
- Melt the butter over medium heat in a large, heavy pan, preferably with deep sides. After it foams, add the curry powder.
- When the curry is very fragrant and darkening just a shade, add the onion and stir, cooking until soft, 5 to 8 minutes-ish.
- Turn the heat up to high, and when the sizzling sounds intense, add the corn kernels, tossing and stirring. Taste a few kernels and season with salt. Cook, stirring so that you’re picking up all the browning goodness that’s happening on the bottom of the pan, until you start thinking that you can’t easily scrape it up anymore. (Incidentally, if you’d like a more thoroughly browned, toasted corn, you can start this step without turning the heat up and just keep stirring constantly as it cooks.)
- Add some liquid — the quantity is up to you; a few tablespoons to help you dissolve the caramelized sugars if you want a drier dish, or more if you’d like it saucier. Add the spinach with a pinch of salt, and stir until it’s wilted.
- Continue to cook the corn until the kernels are tender but still have some pop to them. Stir in the cheese. At this point, I like to have a fair amount of liquid in the pan, almost sloshy, because the cheese will thicken it up to a sauce. But hey, if you want your beautifully aromatic corn to have a veil of cheese holding it together, why would I ever stop you?
- Spoon onto the toast and serve immediately.
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