When it was dinnertime on a late summer’s afternoon in my childhood home, my mother would send me out to pick a few cobs of corn from the garden — but only after the water was already on the stove to boil.
She was a firm believer that corn’s sugar turned to starch faster than a Olympian sprinter runs a 100 metres and had to be cooked as soon as it was picked. My father grew Seneca Chief, an all-yellow variety.
Judith Adam, writing in 2011 for Garden Making magazine, confirms that my mother (as usual) was right in her assertions.
“Seed for ‘Seneca Chief’ corn is still available, though infrequently found in seed catalogues. It’s a normal sugary hybrid, containing a sugar gene (referred to as SU), contributing sweetness that converts rapidly to starch after harvest. Corn with the SU gene has full flavour for only a day, after which much of the sugar is converted to starch. It’s still possible to find these old-fashioned corn varieties through seed banks and exchanges.”
Today’s corn grown for human consumption often is variations on a “peaches and cream” variety: kernels of alternating pale and darker yellow that do not have the SU gene.
Corn is the planet’s most produced cereal crop, a cereal native to the Americas and first farmed by the continent’s indigenous peoples. Corn outstrips both rice and wheat in terms of global production, Statistics Canada tells us. Canada is the world’s No. 11 corn producer (U.S., China and Brazil are in first, second and third spots) and almost all the corn grown in Canada is for grain or silage (used to feed ruminant livestock such as cows). Corn grain can be used for everything from corn syrup to corn flours to the base for ethanol. It also is used as feed for livestock such as chickens.
Fresh-from-the-local-farm summer-and-fall cob-on-the-corn is still a treat; I have never been able to bring myself to buy the ones in grocery stores that come wrapped on styrofoam trays, although agricultural experts now assure us that modern sweet corn varieties have high sugar levels that maintain over time, rather than converting quickly to starch.
Frozen corn makes an excellent substitute for fresh in stews and soups: one of my favourites is a corn-and-salmon chowder, and I recently found this recipe that adds sweet potato, dill and lemon to the mix.
If you do tire of straight-up cobs of corn in fresh-corn season, I highly recommend the following corn salad from Anna Olson’s cookbook Fresh. It wounds weird, I know. But it tastes wonderful and the colours mixed together are amazing. You need both the ginger and a bit of jalepeño (to your taste) to give it a sweet-hot snap.
Anna Olson’s Corn Blueberry Toss
4 ears fresh corn (about 3 cups)
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup chopped green onion
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries
2 tbsp lime juice
1 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped (optional)
1 tbsp finely chopped candied ginger
Remove corn kernels from ears. In a medium sauté pan over medium heat, add the oil and then the corn. Sauté until the corn is tender and bright, about three minutes, and remove to cool. In a large bowl, toss the remaining ingredients with the corn and season to taste.
This salad can be prepared up to a day in advance and chilled until ready to serve.
Main photo: Courtesy Withrow Park Farmers’ Market, Toronto.