In conversation with Raf Epstein, ABC Radio Drive, 28 Nov 2017
Corny Jokes and Cornundrums:
Seasonality: Even though we’re lucky enough to have fresh sweetcorn available year-round, it’s at its sweetest in summer.
What to look for: Believe it or not, corn loses up to 40 percent of its sweetness within SIX HOURS of being picked! This means that if you want amaize-ing flavour (I warned you this one was going to get corny!) you’ll need to look for whole ears, with deep green husks and bushy silks that haven’t started to get too brown or wilty. I know this is a big ask in most places, so my best advice, as always, is to follow your nose. Increasingly, the only kind of corn on offer is de-robed and imprisoned on a Styrofoam tray. Give the ends a whiff – they should smell fresh and sweet, rather than sour or funky. Mind you, aside from maximising storage life, these tray-ed varieties do offer you an opportunity to give the kernels a keen once-over. Plump, golden kernels are your best bet. If the colour’s a little on the greige-side or the kernels have started to dimple, this means your corn has been picked too soon or too late, respectively. This’ll affect sweetness and juiciness, so take heed and cook for a little longer to artificially plump it back to its former glory. To check the kernel quality on a full ear, pull back the husk a little, but be sure to tuck it back in if you’re leaving said sweetcorn on the shelf.
Varieties to look out for: Considering fossilised corn-pollen has been discovered from 80,000 years ago, we’ve had a while to eke out an excellent ear. There are hundreds of sweetcorn varieties available, including bi-colour cobs with white and yellow kernels (fancy!). But these days, considering we’re sweetness NUTS, most of the stuff you see on the market is part of the “super-sweet” variety, which retains more of its sugars for longer. There are also some pretty fun novelty bits and bobs coming through, like popcorn on the cob, which can be slathered in butter and popped as is, in a pot on the stove or in the microwave!
How to store: Like their green pals, peas, corn kernels start to turn starchy swiftly. In fact, corn’s peak freshness is calculated in hours rather than days. That’s why if you can’t find fresh stuff, or buy for cooking right away, frozen and tinned kernels provide a good option. Store fresh cobs in the husk if possible, or if it’s starting to look a little sad, cook it up and store in the fridge for an extra day or so.
How to cook: The less you do to fresh sweetcorn, the better. Plop into boiling water for around 3-8, minutes until vibrant in colour, but hold the salt until after it’s cooked, or you’ll harden the kernels. Sweetcorn can also be served fresh through salads, or popped into piping hot broth for an extra burst of sweetness and crunch. Sweetcorn soup is one of my favourite applications (check out the recipe below for a really interesting recipe from my new bestie who just doesn’t know it yet, Samin Nosrat). Barbecued corn goes down a treat, especially if you keep it in its husk (nature’s alfoil!) and coat the cob itself with garlic butter or olive oil. Salt flakes are sweetcorn’s catnip, so sprinkle liberally to really make the sweetness sing. Like vegetable salted caramel.
Complementary pairings: Butter, Cheese (especially parmesan), Chilli, Lemon, Olive oil, Pepper.
© 2017 Alice Zaslavsky