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  • Writer's pictureChef Kelly Unger

I love getting (sweet) corny!

Every year at this time I sing an ode to sweet corn. I love it so much! I never get sick of corn on the cob with salted butter. But it's fun to play with different flavor profiles with your corn on the cob: go for the Mexican Street Corn flavor of crema, lime, chili powder and cotija cheese, or some freshly chopped basil infused butter, hot chilis, a topping of parmesan cheese, or any of your favorite spice blends added to your butter. Oh, so many delicious ways!  However, corn is so versatile and it goes so well so many things, that I eventually have to expand my corn repertoire. I’ve tried to keep Chef’s Note short this season, but when it comes to corn, I can’t. There’s so much to talk about! 

A baby step away from eating corn off the cob is to cut the corn off the cob and saute the corn in butter and olive oil, then add any other flavor that you’re in the mood for. Sometimes I use hot chilis or peppers and onions, sometimes zucchini. And I always freeze cobs for later in the season. They still have so much flavor to give. Never underestimate the power of a corn cob to add flavor. In fact, if you are cutting the kernels off a bunch of ears of corn, throw all the cobbs immediately into a large pot, fill with water, season with salt, bring to a boil, simmer for an hour and voila! You’ve got a nice corn base that can be added to soups. I try to make Minestrone Soup once a week to make the most of the variety of vegetables we have now at the market. Though I make Minestrone all year long, there’s something especially vibrant about the vegetables of summer that make the soup extra delicious: the freshly picked green beans, corn, zucchini, fresh onions, fresh carrots and their green tops that get chopped up and added in as well.  

I also like to quick freeze a couple dozen ears for Thanksgiving and beyond. I cut the kernels off the cob, lay them out in a single layer on a parchment line baking sheet. I put them in the freezer for an hour, then transfer them to a zip lock freezer bag for long storage. Oh how I love opening that bag on Thanksgiving day.

Corn chowder is another corn season favorite of mine. Sauted bacon and onions with potatoes, sometimes a red bell pepper, corn base and the cream of my choice (half and half, whole milk, coconut milk or a blend of all).

According to North Dakota State University: “Corn as we know it today would not exist if it weren't for the humans that cultivated and developed it. It is a human invention, a plant that does not exist naturally in the wild. It can only survive if planted and protected by humans.

Scientists believe people living in central Mexico developed corn at least 7000 years ago. It was started from a wild grass called teosinte. Teosinte looked very different from our corn today. The kernels were small and were not placed close together like kernels on the husked ear of modern corn. Also known as maize, Indians throughout North and South America eventually depended upon this crop for much of their food.

From Mexico maize spread north into the Southwestern United States and south down the coast to Peru. About 1000 years ago, as Indian people migrated north to the eastern woodlands of present day North America, they brought corn with them. 

When Europeans like Columbus made contact with people living in North and South America, corn was a major part of the diet of most native people. When Columbus "discovered" America, he also discovered corn. But up to this time, people living in Europe did not know about corn. 

The first Thanksgiving was held in 1621. While sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie were not on the menu, Indian corn certainly would have been.” History.html

Corn is a very useful and usable plant crop. The corn husks are used for tamales, the silks can be used for medicinal tea, the kernels for food, and the stalks for animal feed. So while we need to credit the Mexicans for creating the sweet corn we know now as “corn on the cob”, we need to equally credit the Indigenous tribes for keeping it alive here. Since the founding of our country, corn has been a part of our American cuisine. Other countries use corn as a grain and eating it on the cob is not really done. Americans have explored every way to make use of those delicious yellow and white kernels.

Corn has somehow gotten a bad rap nutritionally speaking and that is unfair. According to the Mayo Clinic Health System: “Corn has many health benefits. It consists primarily of insoluble fiber, which makes it a low-glycemic index food. This means it is a food that is digested slowly and doesn't cause an unhealthy spike in blood sugar.

It also contains many B vitamins, as well as essential minerals, including zinc, magnesium, copper, iron and manganese. Since corn is considered a starchy vegetable, people with diabetes need to keep in mind that a half cup of corn, or a small ear of corn, contains 15 grams of carbohydrate and counts as one carbohydrate food choice.” 

What I love about corn, after its flavor, is its versatility. It can be the savory or sweet star of the show or an added pop of flavor and nutrition in a dish. It responds well to every method of cooking and preserving - from freezing to drying to canning. 

I love combining peaches, and any fruit that is in season, with fresh corn in green salads. Here's a fun and very different collection of corn recipes to take you through the seasons: 20 Fresh Corn and Cornmeal Desserts from Epicurious . Enjoy!

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