Corny Propositions

Yesterday's chat got readers all lathered up over corn, which has made its glorious debut at local farmer's markets.

On Sunday, I picked up some that had been grown in Berkeley Springs, W. Va., and it was out of sight, some of the best corn I have eaten in the last few years.

Sen. Chris Dodd
White corn from Berkeley, W. Va. (Kim O'Donnel)

Because of its hidden husk-cloak, corn is always a mystery to the shopper. Can you really tell if the ear you picked will be free of worm holes or rot as well as sweet and tender to the bite? If you've got a secret for weeding out the goodies, please share in the comment areas below.

The next question in corn world is: Cob or kernels? Do you eat your corn right off the cob, typewriter-style, like my kid brother, Tim, or do you prefer to shave it off for a more kernel-y experience? Share your preferences here! (A reader poll would be good right about now.)

As for me, I prefer kernels over the cob. I love how little time it takes to cook them, in salted boiling water, which I add to various veggies and herbs that I've got on hand, for a spritzy, light summer salad. Start to finish (after husking the ears and removing kernels from the cob), this is a 15-minute recipe.

Based on yesterday's chat transcript, it looks like I've got company. Have a look at some of the ideas that were shared:

Gaithersburg, Md.: Need a quick suggestion. I have fresh green beans in the fridge, plus a bag of corn kernels I cut off the cob from last night's leftovers. I'd love the mix the two into a good side dish but really don't know what else to add. Thoughts?

Kim O'Donnel: Little tomatoes. Chopped red onion or shallot. Herbs, like basil and mint. Olive oil. Salt. Lemon or lime. Red bell pepper into dice. I made corn salad last night and was thinking green beans would have been a nice add-on.

CORN!: I love corn salad - Corn, tomatoes, peppers (red and green), red onion, cheese (I use smoked gouda) lemon juice, red wine vinegar, olive oil. It makes me very happy.

Later that day, I received an e-mail from "Mike" in Burke, Va., who added to the corn kernel frenzy.

He writes: "I have dental problems and cannot do corn on the cob. What I usually do with fresh corn is essentially make a succotash. Strip the kernels off, toss them in a saute pan with 3 tablespoons melted butter, add salt, pepper, and a bit of sugar. Then I saute the corn for a couple of minutes and add roasted, peeled chiles (usually poblanos), a drained can of beans (pinto or black) and 1 tablespoon of chili powder.

Continue sauteing until some of the corn gets a little brown around the edges. Great sweet-hot dish."

Now it's your turn to share with the class. What's your favorite way to get corny?

By Kim ODonnel |  July 12, 2006; 9:03 AM ET Vegetarian/Vegan
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I'm new to this whole cooking thing. What's the easiest way to take the corn off the cob and eat the kernels? Am I supposed to soak the corn first? Is there a tool I'm supposed to use?

Posted by: New to cooking | July 12, 2006 11:17 AM

The way to tell how fresh corn is (or so I've always been told, and it seems to work) is to look at the silk that extends out of the husk. The more brown and dried out it is, the longer it's been since the corn was harvested.

And my favorite corn recipe: fresh kernels, sauted briefly in a little bit of butter, and a ton of basil. So simple and so amazingly delicious.

Posted by: Maura B | July 12, 2006 12:14 PM

Ooooh, this risotto is the BEST. All the delightful flavors of summer (and truth be told, even delicious in winter with grape/cherry tomatoes and hothouse basil).

Risotto with Fresh Corn, Tomatoes & Basil
(adapted from Fine Cooking magazine)

4 cups low salt chicken broth
Kernels from 3 ears corn
2 Tbsp unsalted butter or olive oil
1 shallot or small onion, minced
1 cup arborio rice
1/3 cup dry white wine

1 cup chopped plum or cherry tomatoes
2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
3 Tbsp torn fresh basil leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Slice corn kernels from cobs, set aside. Heat broth and corn cobs in pot or saucepan over medium low heat to just below a simmer. Reserve broth and keep it hot.

In heavy-based deep skillet or wide saucepan, melt butter or heat oil over medium heat. Add shallor or onion and cook until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add rice and stir until grains are well coated. Pour in wine, stir and cook until wine is absorbed, about 1 minute.

Ladle in 1 1/2 cups of hot broth and cook, stirring occastionally, until absorbed, 3 to 5 min. Continue adding broth in 1/2 cup increments, stirring and simmering until it's absorbed each time, at intervals of 3 to 5 minutes.

While rice is simmering, combine tomatoes, olive oil and 2 Tbsp of the basil in a small bowl (note: I usually add more basil!). Season with S&P and set aside.

When rice is barely tender, after about 16 minutes, stir in corn kernels. Continue adding broth and stirring until the rice is creamy but still firm to the tooth, about 20 to 25 minutes total.

Remove from heat and stir in cheese and tomato-basil mixture. Top each serving with remaining basil and serve immediately.

VARIATION: Use cilantro in place of the basil, and grill the corn before cutting off the kernels (or use the fire-roasted corn from Trader Joe's). Top with diced avocado.

Posted by: Divine Ms. K | July 12, 2006 12:27 PM

If you're buying corn at the farmer's market--as most of us reading this probably are--then it's most likely just-picked. You do not need to peel the husk all the way back to ensure you've got a good ear--I always feel sorry for the farmer who now has all these picked-over and drying-out ears left on his or her table. Just peel back a little at the top to determine if the kernels are plump--if you must do that much. I mostly just feel the ear for a certain heaviness.
My fave corn salad has scallions, (your-fave-choice-of) vinegar and radishes (lightly sauteed or just mixed with the cooked corn)--the heat sweetens them.

Posted by: picking good ears | July 12, 2006 12:35 PM

I so love this time of year. My favorite way to prepare corn is to grill it. I peel off the husk, rub it with extra virgin olive oil, and shake on salt. Onto the grill it goes, turning every few minutes so you get nice grill marks. I tend to pull my corn off the grill when I see the kernels darken (realy intensify) in color, and shrink (just a little bit). And that's it, just start knawing the kernels off from one end and work your way down, no need for any butter or more salt or any other flavorings.

Posted by: Angie | July 12, 2006 1:24 PM

Go to
You can set up a survey and receive 100 responses for free. Very user friendly and delivers responses in a legible format.

Posted by: A reader poll would be good right about now | July 12, 2006 4:32 PM

I like it roasted in the husk at 450 for 45 minutes. Shuck, butter and salt the cob at the table.

Posted by: John | July 12, 2006 5:39 PM

Really fresh corn has pure yellow silks that smell strongly of sweet corn. Worms leave the silks near the cob a sticky brown. More obviously, age dries out the silks -- the drier the older the corn -- then leaves the husks papery and pale.

Fresh Corn Cakes
My favorite way to enjoy the late summer corn here in Maine -- usually in early September! They're great with some fresh blueberries as well.

2 1/2 cups fresh corn (about 4 ears)
2 cups flour
2 Tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. salt
pinch fresh black pepper
3 eggs
3/4 cup mil
2 Tbsp. melted butter
1/4 cup fresh blueberries

Scrape corn from cobs. Combine dry ingredients. In separate bowl beat eggs, add milk and butter. Stir till moistened and add corn.

I cook small pancakes (about 2 Tbsp. batter) in a non-stick pan with a little butter. Thin batter with a little milk if needed. If you have the blueberries, sprinkle over the top of the pancakes while in the pan to avoid blue pancakes.

Posted by: Jeanne | July 13, 2006 8:37 AM

As much as the Food Network shoves a lot of silly things down our throats (yes, pun intended), that Good Deal kid chef made something with corn not too long ago. Instead of cutting the kernals off and then cooking them, he boiled the whole cob, let the corn cool and then cut them off. I tried it and it is much easier and the kernals don't go flying. Thanks vaguely cute New York City cheap chef!

Posted by: phanie | July 13, 2006 11:29 AM

I tried a new thing -- corn on the grill. Carefully peeled back the leaves and removed the silk, then pushed the leaves back forward and soaked in salted water for a half hour. I grilled the ears over medium heat until the leaves began to shrink, then tonged the leaves back to expose the creamy kernels and grilled over high heat until carmel spots appeared.

This stuff was great on the cob, but I cut off kernels from the extra ears and tossed with olive oil, scallions, and leftover grilled veggies (squash, eggplant, onion). It was nice on lettuce the next day.

Posted by: Rita | July 14, 2006 12:20 AM

Well, out here on the western slope of Colorado where we grow Olathe corn, the best technique is to soak the corn cob in water about 20 minutes (husk and all), then open the husks slightly and cut about 1 inch from the cob, slide butter and whatever seasonings you may like (we do chile seasonings), under the husk, then use the husk end to twist and tie off. Simply grill it about 20 mins. then peel and savor. This allows the husk to soak up water, then you season as you like, then by tying the husk end down, you seal in the seasoning and butter for the grilling experience. No salt, and definitely no damn boiling!!!! Enjoy!!!

Posted by: Jeff S./Colorado | July 14, 2006 12:25 AM

The best pest infestation for corn is subjecting them to be preyed by wasps.
Wasps eat the worms and can keep your corn free from pests.

I loved corn in a pastry pocket filled with a mixture of onions, tomatoes, prawns and corns.

Posted by: Esther | July 14, 2006 5:02 AM

Don't put salt in the water, use a scoop of sugar and only boil the corn for 4 min.

Posted by: Fred | July 14, 2006 7:02 AM

Corn on the cob, in the husk, microwave high about 7 minutes. Remove hot husk carefully! Butter and salt.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 14, 2006 7:31 AM

Looking at the silk tells you nothing about the freshness of the ear. Some varieties aren't ripe until the silk is quite brown and dried out looking. No, the most reliable way to tell whether corn is fresh is to look at the other end of the ear, where it was attached to the stalk. The more dried out and shriveled that looks, the longer it's been off the stalk.

I got my insistence on corn freshness from working on a farm as a youth. There was just no point in eating corn that was picked earlier than that day; day-old corn was fed to the pigs. I feel that way to this day, despite the new "super sweet" varieties that have so much sugar that they still taste sweet several days off the stalk. The supersweet corn sugars still change to starches, but since there are more of them to begin with it still tastes sweet- but you can still taste the starches and that tastes stale to me. I'll take a freshly picked heirloom variety like Silver Queen any day.

How to pick corn: 1st, stay away from the grocery store! Get yourself to a farm stand and talk to the people there. Make sure the corn was picked _today_. Looking at the stem end may provide reassurance that you aren't being fed a line. Grab the silk end with your hand. You are feeling for fullness. This will tell you if the corn is fully ripe. But beware- if the tip of the ear feels almost square, that's a good indication that the corn is overripe, which is just as bad as being picked days ago. As for worms, you pretty much have choice. Some number of worms or heavy use of pesticides. I prefer minimal use of pesticides. Just look at the ear. If there aren't obvious holes on the sides, chances are any worm damage is all on the tip where it can be trivially cut off with a chef's knife.

Grilling corn is good. Boiling is fine- definitely add salt, sugar is unnecessary for fresh corn. 5 minutes tops.

Posted by: Mark | July 14, 2006 8:35 AM

Encircle the silk end of the corn with your thumb and forefinger, you can feel the kernels in the taper. I prefer that the ear be medium size with a taper that is not fully developed; picked "young", tender and sweet. Turn the ear over where it is broken off from the corn stalk. If it is wet, it's freshly picked. I have no idea why people husk corn before they buy it, you can feel what's going on inside with your fingers and see what's going on with your eyes.

Most white hybrid corn seems to stay sweet a long time after picking but it doesn't taste like corn, it's just sweet. If you can find freshly picked yellow corn at some roadside stand, buy it, enjoy it and tell your grandchildren about the time you ate yellow corn. They won't believe you because no one grows it anymore ("no demand" I was told). Too bad, yellow corn is the best. Just pick it and eat it on the same day.

Hybrid white corn was one of the few vegetables developed for it's taste, it's sugars frozen in time so that it can be stored and shipped. Unfortunately they left the "corn taste" out of the corn.

Tip: Don't buy too much corn at one time, eat it fresh and buy more later, especially if it is yellow. Find a roadside stand and stop every day. My favorite stand has a walk-in cooler where the freshly picked corn is stored during the day.

I prefer corn on the grill, with or without husks. Second choice is corn in the microwave. I can't remember the last time I boiled or steamed it on the stove.

Posted by: Bud | July 14, 2006 8:41 AM

Pull husk back slightly and puncture
a few kernels with your fingernail:
if milky fluid comes out, corn is fresh and can be eaten raw or cooked only enough to heat it(then crack the cob open and suck out the center--it's like sugar cane). If watery or dry, then not ready or too old(starchy). Corn sugar turns to starch within 36 hours.

Posted by: jim baker | July 14, 2006 9:10 AM

We enjoy local white corn and wait until summer with bated breath. I use a simple method of preparing my corn: Fill a pot 3/4 of the way with water. Shuck the corn, put the corn in the pot of water and then add enough milk to make the water resemble extremely watery milk - enough to cloud the water. I put it on boil for about 20 minutes & turn off the heat and let the corn sit in the pot to keep the corn warm until the rest of the food is ready. The time to cook differs upon the number of ears you're cooking; I use the 20 minute rule for 6 ears. The kernels are much softer and I've never had them go mushy. When in doubt, take it out! We then butter and salt (sometime sprinkling with Thyme)and often pepper the ears before digging in. The milk sweetens the corn immensely - using a few sprinkles of sugar instead will provide similar results. Enjoy!

Posted by: Hanna | July 14, 2006 12:39 PM

Taste treat kick that I'm still on is boiled corn, real butter and Old Bay seasoning on the cob.

Posted by: walt | July 14, 2006 12:39 PM

please don't stick your fingernails into corn kernels of ears you are not going to purchase.

I totally agree about yellow corn being rare and amazing--even better is the corn that is yellow and white together!

Posted by: please don't | July 14, 2006 2:11 PM

I husk the corn and put it in a microwave-safe container with a small amount of water. Microwave on high for five minutes. The resulting corn (if it's fresh) is still slightly crunchy and delicious, and the vitamins and minerals don't get boiled away.

I've been eating corn every night if I can find it. Brought some back from a farm stand on the Delaware/Maryland border on Sunday that was the best corn I'd eaten in a long time.

BTW, Kim, to answer your question: my favorite way to eat corn is right off the cob, with butter or margarine and salt. Taking the kernels off the cob (if you're just going to eat them and not use them in a recipe) ruins the whole corn-eating experience, IMHO.

Posted by: DMS | August 9, 2006 4:38 PM

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