YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

SOCAL STYLE / Entertaining

The Ears Have It

Stalking Corn With That Sweet, Just-Picked Flavor

July 18, 1999|BRENDA BELL | Brenda Bell last wrote about tiramisu for the magazine

During the several years my husband and I spent in Washington, D.C., we found unexpected pleasures in the rhythm of life on the East Coast. We loved the regular seasons--spring, summer, winter, fall--arriving right on time, just like the calendar said. We became deeply attached to the local farmers markets (ours was the venerable Eastern Market on Capitol Hill), where city dwellers snapped up the seasonal bounty of the Chesapeake Bay region: sweet blue crabs, crisp Appalachian apples, organic chickens deboned in a flash of knives wielded by two exceedingly handsome brothers from Baltimore. Last but not least, there was the corn.

Fresh corn on the Potomac? Yes, indeed. Fields of 7-foot-tall corn were ripening in the breeze as we drove back from a weekend aboard our little sailboat on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Stopping at a roadside stand one day, we bought a dozen plump ears for a ridiculously low price. The farmer told us it was Silver Queen, a white variety we'd never had before. That night at supper we took our first bite of Silver Queen and experienced what could best be called a corn epiphany. So sweet! So tender! So sweet!

The next weekend we went back for more. We searched for it in farmers markets. No more ordinary yellow corn for us. It was Silver Queen or nothing. For weeks, we had our fill. Then the harvest was over, and we were spoiled forever.

We didn't know it then, but we were on the leading edge of a taste revolution that has swept cornfields all across America. Today, most fresh corn (both yellow and white) at the supermarket is one of a dozen or so "supersweet" hybrids, which beat standard varieties like Silver Queen at their own game. These newer hybrids contain two to three times as much sugar as the older types. They're also bred to slow the metabolic conversion of sugar to starch after harvest, ensuring better quality and a longer shelf life at the store. (This conversion occurs quickly in standard varieties and is the reason for the old adage that you should bring the pot of water to boil before you go out to pick the corn.)

Another type of hybrid, called "sugar-enhanced" corn, contains only 10% to 15% more sugar and metabolizes at about the same rate as regular corn. They're popular at roadside stands and farmers markets, where they can be sold fresh from the field.

Not everyone believes that candy-sweet corn is an improvement. "For those of us who grew up in the Midwest, these do not taste like the roasting ears we used to have," says Tim Hartz, an agronomist at UC Davis. But the majority rules the market, and the overwhelming consumer preference is for sweetness.

All but a small percentage of the corn grown in the United States is for livestock feed, not human consumption; less than 30,000 acres planted in California are destined for the table. Yet SoCal corn lovers enjoy a superlong season that puts the rest of the country, including the Corn Belt, to shame.

"Essentially from the first of May to the end of October, any corn you see in California grocery stores is going to be from the West Coast," Hartz says. Beginning with the spring harvest in the Imperial and Coachella valleys, the harvest marches northward, finishing up in Oregon's Willamette Valley in August. In the milder coastal zone--Ventura, Orange and San Diego counties--corn is still being picked in October.

Angelenos can also grow their own corn through the summer and fall, as long as they live within 15 miles or so of the coast, Hartz says. Even the long-lasting supersweets will taste better when picked in your backyard and cooked immediately.

Roasting is a trendy way to cook corn these days, but I find that carefully pulling down the husks, removing the silks and then replacing the husks is too tedious when I'm feeding a crowd. It's easier to just rip that stuff off and throw the clean ears into a big pot of boiling water--then turn the flame off (or remove the pot from the electric burner) and let the ears sit for a couple of minutes. The hot water gives good fresh corn all the cooking it needs. Let your guests add butter and salt to taste.

Here are five more recipes that make excellent use of our enviable corn season. Eat your heart out, Nebraska.


Silver Queen Corn Spoon Bread

Adapted from a recipe by Seattle cookbook

author Sharon Kramis

Makes 6 to 8 servings


5-6 ears (or 2 cups) Silver Queen corn (or any supersweet variety), uncooked

2 cups milk

1 1/2 cups white cornmeal

1/4 cup butter

1 cup shredded white cheddar cheese

1 clove garlic, minced

6 eggs, separated

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut corn kernels from cobs and set aside.

Combine milk and cornmeal in heavy saucepan. Stir and cook over medium heat until mixture thickens, making sure it doesn't burn. Remove from heat and add butter, stirring to melt. Stir in corn kernels, cheese and garlic and set aside to cool.

Los Angeles Times Articles