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Danville Express

Living - July 31, 2009

Epicure: Cooking by ear

by Jacqui Love Marshall

These days, corn is ubiquitous. Some form of it, especially cornstarch and corn sweeteners, is in practically everything we eat- from cereal to soft drinks, ice cream to cheese puffs, frozen pizza to popcorn. All too often, corn products are used to preserve or process other foods. But there's nothing like sweet corn on the cob to remind us what chin-dripping-juicy freshness tastes like.

Corn has a special place in American history. In Native American usage, the word for corn means "our life," "our mother" or "she who sustains us." It was the cultivation of corn that converted Native American tribes from nomadic to agrarian communities. Corn is descended from a seed-bearing grass called "teosinte" that still grows in Mexico. The first corn plants seem to have appeared in Mexico but the earliest ears of corn were tiny- only a few inches long. Centuries of breeding have resulted in bigger, fuller ears of corn and made corn one of the world's three leading grain crops.

Native American farmers in the Ohio River Valley had been growing corn for more than 1,700 years before the first "immigrants" crossed the Appalachian Mountains, and there is evidence that they used corn to brew beer before Europeans arrived in the Americas. Pawtuxet Indians in Massachusetts introduced corn to the first American settlers and taught them how to grow and cook with it. Without corn, the Pilgrims of Plymouth colony might have starved to death during their first year in America. Considering its history, it's no wonder that corn has become such a staple in our culinary habits.

Corn's sugars quickly revert to starch as the corn ages, so when selecting corn on the cob, freshness is the No. 1 factor. Locate a reliable source and look for ears snugly wrapped in green, pliable husks that are not dried out. Run your fingers along the husks; you should be able to feel juicy-plump, tightly packed kernels all the way to the top. Once bought, cook the fresh corn as soon as possible. Or, wrap the husks in damp paper towels, and store in zip-locked bags in the refrigerator for no more than two days.

Instead of drenching a cob with butter, consider this popular Mexican way of serving an ear of corn: Squeeze lime over the kernels and sprinkle with chile powder or paprika. Salt to taste and serve. Or, try my favorite way, grilling. Listen (with all ears), it doesn't get any easier than that to enjoy fresh corn this summer!

Jacqui Love Marshall lives in San Ramon with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at jlovemarshall@yahoo.com.

Grilling Corn on the Cob

Remove husks, except for the 1-2 innermost layers. Gently fold back that layer, being careful not to tear or remove it, and remove as much of the silk as you can. Soak the cobs in cold water for about 15 minutes.

Brush the kernels lightly with olive oil or vegetable spray and, if desired, season the cob with black pepper, nutmeg, garlic, etc. Pull the husk back into place to cover the cob.

Place the cobs on a hot grill and cover. When the husk is fully browned on one side, 2-3 minutes, turn the cobs to brown on the other side, 5-6 minutes total. Serve immediately.

Recipes

Avocado-Corn Salsa (1-1/2 cups)

2 small/medium ripe avocados, peeled, seeded, and finely diced

1 cup fresh corn kernels (about 2 ears), preferably kernels that have been grilled

2 medium tomatoes, seeded and finely diced

2-3 Tbsp lime juice

1 Tbsp finely chopped fresh cilantro

1/2-1 tsp minced hot green chile peppers

1/2 tsp salt

Pepper to taste

In a medium bowl, gently combine avocado, corn kernels, tomatoes, lime juice, cilantro, chile peppers, salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Toasted Corn, Tomato and Edamame Salad (serves 4-6)

1 cup frozen shelled edamame

5 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

2-1/4 cups fresh corn kernels (about 2-3 ears)

2 Tbsp plain low-fat yogurt

2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 tsp honey

1/2 tsp minced garlic

Kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 heaping cup quartered cherry tomatoes (about 15)

1/4 cup very thinly sliced fresh mint

1/4 cup very thinly sliced fresh basil

1. Cook the edamame according to package directions. Drain, and set aside to cool.

2. Heat 1 Tbsp of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the corn and cook, stirring occasionally, until the kernels are golden brown in patches, about 9 minutes. Transfer to a bowl to cool.

3. In a small bowl, whisk the yogurt, lemon juice, honey, garlic, and 1/4 tsp salt. Slowly pour in the remaining 4 Tbsp olive oil, whisking mixture until fully blended. Season with salt and pepper.

4. In a serving bowl, combine the edamame, corn, tomatoes and herbs. Gently toss with half of the vinaigrette. Add more vinaigrette, salt and pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature.

Fresh Corn Soup (serves 6)

8 cups fresh corn kernels (14-16 ears) *

6 cups water

1 Tbsp coarse salt

Whole milk

1/4 cup chopped fresh chives

2 medium ears of corn to equal about 1 cup corn kernels

*

1. Cut corn off the cob: In a shallow bowl, hold ears of corn upright and, with a sharp knife, cut kernels from the cobs. With blunt edge of the knife, scrape any remaining juice from cobs.

1. In a large pot of water, add salt and corn, cover and simmer about 20 minutes or until corn is very tender. Remove from heat.

2. In a blender or food processor, purée soup in batches until very smooth (note: work with caution while blending hot liquids). As each batch is puréed, pour it through a coarse sieve, pressing on solids, into a bowl.

3. In a large saucepan, heat soup, stirring well. Thin the soup to a desired thickness with whole milk. Soup may be served hot or chilled. Serve sprinkled with chives.

Note: Soup may be made 3 days ahead; then cooled, covered and refrigerated.

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