Corn, an ancient grass, provides summer delight

Hot and tangy pan-roasted corn
Hot and tangy pan-roasted corn, recipe by cookbook author Beth Dooley.
Courtesy of Beth Dooley

There’s a saying in Mexico, where corn originates, that goes: “sin maíz no hay país,” essentially meaning that corn and the Mexican people are one and cannot exist without the other.

Corn or maize is a staple food that has been cultivated by Indigenous tribes all throughout the Americas for millennia, beginning somewhere between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago. Corn is a grass and has over 12,000 types all over the world.

Today, in the United States, we grow corn to feed cows more than humans. However, when summer hits and the grills light up, corn on the cob can be found on many a gingham spread.

Here to talk with us about inventive ways to enjoy the kernels beyond your typical elote is cookbook author Beth Dooley. Her advice on finding the perfect ear? 

“When shopping for corn, the farmers market is your best bet; try to get there early in the day while the corn is super fresh. Look for corn with bright green husks and ears with plump kernels. The kernels at the top should be smaller than the rest (larger kernels mean the corn is overmature). Avoid those with wilted or dried husks or depressed kernels. Try to eat the corn as soon as possible, and keep the husks on until ready to cook,” Dooley told All Things Considered host Tom Crann.

“If you must keep corn for a day or two, cover the unhusked corn with a damp kitchen towel and store in the refrigerator. Such a sweet dilemma, too much corn.”

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And what to do with those scrumptious ears once you find them?

“My latest favorite is pan-roasting those fresh plump kernels cut right from the cob,” she said.

“When tossed in a cast iron skillet set over a tame flame, the corn’s sweet, straightforward flavors are transformed as the sugars caramelize to a deep crusty brown. The method is quick and easy and the crisped golden nuggets will spark soups, salads or the batters for pancakes, muffins or cornbread. Store them in a freezer bag for a wintry dish.

An ear of corn will typically yield a scant cup of corn kernels. To cut the kernels from the cob, stand the cob upright in a shallow bowl and with a paring knife cut down along the kernels as close to the cob as you can. Dig that knife in because you’ll also release the ‘corn milk’ into the bowl. For three to four cups of kernels, use a ratio of about two tablespoons unsalted butter, coconut oil, olive oil, hazelnut oil or vegetable oil to pan-roast.

Please, hang onto the corncobs! They make fabulous stock. Put them into a large pot with just enough water to cover, set over high heat, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer for about an hour. Remove and discard the cobs and allow the stock to cool before storing in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to a week, or freeze, ready to use as a base for soups, stews, sauces and sautés.”

Hot and tangy pan-roasted corn

Serves four.

Make this now, while tomatoes and corn are at their peak. It’s one of those dishes you can eat three times a day. For breakfast, top with a fried egg; for lunch, add crumbled feta cheese; for dinner, toss in grilled chicken or steak. 

  • 4 to 6 ears fresh corn, shucked

  • 2 tablespoon vegetable oil

  • 1/4 cup chopped onion

  • Generous pinch red pepper flakes, to taste

  • 1 to 2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, to taste

  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

  • 1/2 cup sliced cherry tomatoes

  • 2 tablespoon chopped fresh basil, for garnish

Use a sharp paring knife to strip the kernels from the corn by standing the corn up on its wide end in a shallow bowl and cutting down the length of the ear.

Film a large, heavy large skillet with the oil and set over medium-high heat. Add the corn and the onion and spread so that the kernels evenly cover the surface of the pan. Sear the corn, shaking the pan occasionally, and stirring so that it is nicely browned, about three to five minutes.

Turn it into a bowl, season with the pepper flakes, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Arrange on a serving plate or individual dishes, and arrange the tomatoes on top of the corn. Garnish with the chopped basil.