By Charlyn Fargo
It’s been called nature’s sugar. Those sunburst-yellow kernels tucked into an ear that’s wrapped in silks and a green husk for protection. Sweet corn has undergone radical changes, becoming sweeter every year as corn geneticists have engineered a bundle of supersweet hybrids that are designed to remain sweet and non-starchy.
For three short months, just-picked ears fill farmers markets and supermarket bins, bursting with summer flavor. In fact, we Americans each consume an average of nine pounds of sweet corn a year. Our collective favorite is the yellow and white bicolor varieties.
Byron Shotts, a veterinarian from Casey, Illinois, started planting bicolor sweet corn when the first varieties came out – Peaches and Cream, Honey and Pearl, and now Ambrosia – and prefers its sweeter taste. He and his brother, Mike, of Martinsville, try to plant a half acre devoted just to corn as early as possible (late April or early May in Southeastern Illinois) and then stagger plantings every two to three weeks, weather permitting, until the first of July. The two raise it to give to family and friends.
“It’s something my dad always did,” Shotts says. “And I’ve just carried on the tradition. He passed away 11 years ago, and it makes us think of him. We love eating it straight out of the garden with butter and salt and pepper.”
Their mother, Marilyn, still cans and freezes the corn kernels each summer.
“Our biggest battle is with the bugs and the wildlife,” Shotts says. “We finally decided to put up a temporary electric fence to keep the coons out.”
At last year’s Illinois State Fair, ears of sweet corn were sold Tex-Mex style – seasoned with lime, cumin and chili powder – with the husk still on, the Tex-Mex flavors spread with butter over the just-cooked ears.
The beauty of corn is its versatile ability to take on flavors, whether something as simple as butter and salt and pepper or as complex as Indian flavors such as a mix of curry powder, lemon zest and cilantro.
Once picked, sweet corn will hold in the refrigerator from five to seven days, but the sooner it’s cooked, the sweeter it tastes, before the natural sugar in the kernels turns to starch.
In my family, we spent a few days each summer, usually around the Fourth of July, putting up sweet corn for the winter. All of us had a job. My dad and brother picked the ears and husked them. Mom and I washed, blanched and iced down the ears. My husband would cut the corn off the cobs, and we’d all help package it into pint-size bags to freeze. Come Thanksgiving, when summer’s bounty made it on the table next to the turkey, we appreciated the labor of love from the past summer.
We’ve compiled a variety of sweet corn recipes, including Creamy Chili-Lime Corn, a Tex-Mex-inspired corn dish with goat cheese; a sweet and savory corn and blueberry salad with honey-lime dressing that goes well with just about any grilled meat; a smoky grilled corn salsa with black beans and avocado chunks; and a sweet, creamy potato corn chowder my dear friend Rosalynne would bring to all the office potlucks.