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COOKING

Wrapped up in summer

August 23, 2006|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

FOR an ill-fated book, I once had to come up with 12 ways to cook halibut and was feeling a little desperate after grilled, baked, broiled, poached, beer-battered, nut-crusted and even planked. Shucking corn for the ninth recipe, a chowder, I found the perfect raw material for No. 10.

Thinking back on the green corn tamales of my salad days, I realized I could wrap fillets in the bright green husks and steam them; the ineffable corn flavor would infuse the very mild fish while keeping the meat -- which can go so dry so fast -- almost impossibly juicy.

The husks did all that and more. Unfolding them at the table was like unwrapping a very fragrant gift. And when fresh corn, jalapenos, cilantro and butter were tucked into the husks on a second attempt, the payoff was even richer.

This time of year, really fresh corn on the cob can be half kernels, half husks, but it's not a waste. Those peak-season husks are soft and pliable and have a grassy taste and smell that you never detect with the tired ears in supermarkets out of summertime. They can substitute for parchment in papillote, keep grilled chicken succulent while imparting good smoky flavor and, of course, wrap up tamales.

Green corn tamales, made from fresh corn rather than dried masa and steamed in the fresh husks, will always taste like the essence of summer to me. I got addicted in college in Tucson, where we waited all year for the signs announcing their arrival in Mexican restaurants. These delicate little parcels are airy rather than dense and, even blended so heavily with cheese, butter and green chiles, just packed with corn taste from the inside out.

They do take a little work, but nothing like traditional tamales because they need no meat filling. You just have to grind the corn in a blender, mix it with the other ingredients, such as grits to give the tamales body, and start spooning it into the soft husks. Working with them is also faster and easier than soaking and wrestling the usual dried husks. A relatively short dunk in hot water will both clean and soften them.

The "dough" -- the untraditional way I like it -- is very light and fragile and steams up soft, like a spicy corn pudding. You can serve green corn tamales as a vegetarian main course or make them a rich side dish or even a knife-and-fork appetizer.

Using fresh corn husks as a wrapper for grilled meat or fish is another way to add flavor and seal in succulence. Chicken breasts swaddled in husks take on a slight smokiness from the grill without getting dried out. The husks will char, but not the meat.

Because shiitakes go so well with corn, a few slices on top will play up the husks' attributes -- their corn flavor and moisture-sealing capability. Marinating both the mushrooms and the breasts in lime juice and olive oil adds another subtle layer of taste. This technique will also work with turkey breast.

But it is with halibut that corn husks really have a transformative power. They capture and concentrate all the flavors of the fish so much better than a sauce spooned on after the fact.

And then there is the most elemental way to cook in corn husks: grill or roast the entire ears without shucking. If you peel back the husks enough to remove the silk, then fold them back over the kernels, soak the whole thing in water and lay on a grill or into a hot oven, the corn will take on amazing flavor. You can eat it plain, with butter or with lime juice and salt, or you can slice off the kernels and add them to salads for a sweet and smoky taste. Halibut salad?

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Halibut steamed in corn husks

Total time: About 30 minutes, plus 15 minutes for soaking husks

Servings: 4

About 18 large, wide, fresh corn husks

2 large jalapenos, seeded and finely diced

1 cup fresh, raw corn kernels

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

2 cloves garlic, minced

Juice of 1 large lime

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

About 1 teaspoon sea salt or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 halibut fillets, 5 to 6 ounces each, skinless (about 3/4 - to 1-inch thick)

1 avocado, sliced, for garnish

1. In a large bowl, soften the corn husks in very hot water until they are pliable, about 15 minutes.

2. Bring a large covered pot of water with a steamer basket insert to a simmer.

3. Combine the jalapenos, corn, cilantro, garlic, lime juice and butter in a bowl and blend well. Season liberally with salt and pepper.

4. Drain 4 husks and wipe them dry. Lay them out on a work surface so that they overlap. Season 1 piece of fish with salt and pepper and lay it on the center of the husks. Spread a quarter of the corn mixture over the top of the fish. Fold the husks up and over the fish to make a tidy package. Use strips of extra husks to tie them, or use string. Repeat with the remaining fish.

5. Place the packets in the pot, cover and steam 8 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. Remove the fish carefully from the steamer, so as not to break the packets. Serve in the husks and garnish each plate with sliced avocado.

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