Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Delights of Sweet Corn

Sweet Corn at Gade Farm, courtesy of Gade Farm

Whether you are at a farmer’s market in Los Angeles, a farm stand near Lake Erie or a New York supermarket, we are approaching the pinnacle of sweet corn season.

In a recent conversation, Steve Lyle, Communications Director for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said enthusiastically, “The supply and quality of sweet corn coming to California farm stands, farmer’s markets and supermarkets is excellent!”

You may think that sweet corn is a quaint part of America cuisine, food rolled out this time of year at picnics or lobster dinners.

However, Lyle reports that California’s sweet corn crop has an estimated value of $117 million. Stephen Williams, writing in a recent issue of the Schenectady Gazette, discovered that New York ranks fourth, nationally, in sweet corn production, “behind only Florida, California and Georgia.” In a recent essay in The Gazette, Maggie Hartley, the paper's Arts Editor, learned from one of her farming neighbors that farm stands do not start drawing steady business until sweet corn and tomatoes are on display.

At the Hannaford Supermarket in my neighborhood, there is a nice size pile of sweet corn when I shop early in the morning. If I am shopping after dinner, it’s always down to a stray ear or two. Gade Farm around the corner has a large pile daily in their farm store.

This year, it seems the corn in upstate New York is slightly more petit than in past years. So, before you check out, look at the ears you have chosen. You may want to buy a few more, so no one goes short when dinner is served.

While corn has been around for a long time, sweet corn is a recent arrival. Stephan Jones, on his Reluctant Gourmet website, states that sweet corn was probably first cultivated in the 1600’s by Iroquois tribes in upstate New York.

Since then, agricultural scientists continue tinkering with the species. According to the University of Illinois Extension Service’s website Watch Your Garden Grow, sweet corn can be “normal sugary,” “sugary enhancer” or “supersweet.” Agricultural scientists also breed for tenderness and are adding genes to resist pests that threaten corn crops.

While reading research articles and seed company websites, I discovered there is a Montauk species of sweet corn. It is bred to be pest resistant and harvested late in the season. Might the researcher who developed this variety been looking for fresh produce to go with a striped bass caught in October under the Montauk Lighthouse?

Newspapers, websites and radio are full of sweet corn recipes in this season. However, my favorite is corn on the cob. It is easy to prepare and gives the deliciousness of the corn center stage.

Michael, one of the produce experts at Hannaford, observes the biggest mistake with corn on the cob is overcooking it. To avoid this, he advises, “When the water comes to a boil, put the ears of corn into the pot. As soon as it returns to the boil, remove the corn; it will be done.”

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