Ah, Purity…The Lesson Of Mid-Summer Corn

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When it comes to one of life’s great joys—eating!—I am not exactly immune to complication. If I were, how could I be so ravenous for the multiplicity of Indian spices soaking through a piece of chicken? For the pile-up of mouth-provoking ingredients on top of pork in a tortilla? For each and every ingredient in a Cantonese shrimp stir-fry in addition to the shrimp?

But then there’s the purity principle, which came up big-time this week as I visited a mid-summer Farmers’ Market in Manhattan. I went to market with my dear friend James Monahan…and we left the market with sacks of mid-summer corn, picked that morning in nearby fields, one of my favorite treats of the gastronomic calendar.

When we parted, en route to our respective kitchens, we discussed our respective plans for our ears. “For me,” I said, “there’s never any doubt. It’s always boil it, butter it, salt it. That is it.”

Monahan was aghast. “Seriously?” he croaked. “Corn is a great background for all kinds of flavors! I’m going the grilled route, with Mexican spices and lime!”

“But….but….” I stuttered. But Monahan was gone, heading towards his charcoal and his spice rack.

The Monahan ear of corn
The Monahan ear of corn 

So I started doing one thing I like almost as much as eating…thinking.

I am freakin’ obstinate about mid-summer corn getting the most basic of treatments. Why? Do I feel this way about other foods?

I think the cognitive dissonance occurs for a good man like Monahan because…corn ain’t considered luxury. In our sometimes-weird food culture, only luxury customarily gets purity.

Think about it. Think about the ingredients that gastronomes get all pure about. Caviar. Foie gras terrine. Truffles. Wagyu beef. What binds all of these things together? Dollar signs, for one thing. Once you’ve absorbed the hit on 4 ounces of Osetra caviar for $500….why (if you’re a caviar lover) would you want to put a dill pesto on it with crispy Bombay duck? That way madness lies.

What I realized is this: there are ingredients out there, like mid-summer corn, which should be on the same holy plane of purity. Price has nothing to do with it, hard as it may be to accept that cheap deserves pure, as well.

A perfect ear of corn, bursting with juice, sweet as honey (and the less genetically engineered the sweetness the better), complex as all get-out with layers of buttery-vegetal flavor, deserves the gustatory spotlight every bit as much as a big spoonful of caviar. I would feel that way even if I didn’t know the perfect way to support all that corny goodness.

Shuck the corn only halfway; leave some leaves and silk on the corn. This boosts flavor. Place the ears in a big pot of cold water, turn heat high, cover, and cook until the water boils. At that point the corn is ready. Remove, and pull the rest of the foliage off. You need to do this under a splash of cold running water, because the ear is so hot. But quickly place the shorn ears on a paper towel to get off the water; the steam will come back instantly. Have a large platter prepared with pats of butter—lots of it!—and place the hot, dry corn on the platter. Top with more butter. Then sprinkle all with coarse salt, and tumble the ears against each other. Be ready with more salt. Hide the black pepper—it disturbs the purity!

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If you follow all these steps with picked-that-day corn from a nearby farm…you will not consider this pure drivel! And I suspect you’ll be saving the Mexican spices for your next carnitas taco.