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Finger-lickin', teeth-pickin' corn on the cob

By early August, if the corn harvest hasn’t started to trickle in from nearby fields, then I get mighty grumpy. Time is short, after all, when it comes to the simple pleasure of enjoying one of summer’s best offerings. So I’m always playing catch-up during the brief summer weeks when the local stuff is on deck.

Well, arrive it has. By the truck load. All over town, the household cube of butter is permanently indented from the heavy onslaught of corn roll-bys. And the August bill for dental floss? Forget about it.

In the last few years, I’ve added another level of ritual to my annual celebration of corn season. On all our August and September backpacking trips, the first night’s menu always includes fresh local corn. Off the cob, of course, and packed into a recloseable plastic bag, along with the pat of butter it will be cooked with up in the wilderness. The extra weight it adds to my pack for the first leg of our adventure is fair trade for the groans of delight it produces among our group of trail-weary hikers.

As long as the kernels have been refrigerated up to the point of hitting the trail, they arrive at the end of that first day’s hike perky, tender and receptive to a brief simmer in the largest backpacking pot we’ve got, along with the butter, a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and just a splash of water.

While many cultures and their cuisines focus on the various by-products of corn — cornbread, polenta, hominy and tortilla, to name a few — what most Americans really hanker for this time of year is plain old, finger-lickin’, teeth-pickin’, 5-napkin corn on the cob. Or off. But just barely, as in really good creamed corn, or corn saute, or a salad of fresh roasted corn kernels, tomatoes and cukes.

So I figure my job is simply to offer a bit of guidance. For example, in my enthusiastic support of local corn, I’m constantly encouraging cooks to start with ears that are at their peak of maturity. Not immature or over-mature. To judge for yourself, simply peel back a tiny little strip of the husk and poke a kernel with your thumbnail. Perfectly mature corn will spurt a milky liquid, whereas immature corn will produce a clear juice, and overly mature corn, with its doughy interior, barely any liquid.

Please note that I said “gently peel a tiny little strip of the husk,” which doesn’t mean you have my blessing to yank down an entire side of husk from each ear you’re investigating. That would be rude. All you need to do is expose a few kernels to execute your thumbnail test.

Of course, nobody needs help figuring out what to do with those first few weeks' worth of the local corn harvest. But pretty soon you'll all be looking for alternatives. Which is where the following recipes come in — simple preparations, as well as a collection of flavored butters that offer a bit of variation on corn-on-the-cob theme.

Prepare several different flavored butters soon. Then store them in the refrigerator to have on hand for the rest of the corn season. Last year I made up an extra-big batch of my favorite — Kokanee Cafe's Chipotle Butter — and gave it away to some fellow corn heads. You can just imagine how popular I was!

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a cookbook author and columnist in Corvallis. Reach her at janrd@proaxis.com.