I love our local sweet corn, but it comes with a complicated history. The season now lasts from mid-July until past the middle of September. I find the best corn is generally found from the end of July until the first week of September. It's during this period our local corn fully develops its savory flavor, becoming more nuanced while maintaining its characteristic sweetness and tenderness. Later in the season, the sugars convert to starch and the kernels become tougher.
Corn or maize, as it's known below our southern border, was first cultivated by indigenous people in southern Mexico as early as 10,000 years ago from a grass called teosinte. The earliest ears of maize were just inches long and bore little resemblance to our sweet corn of today. Maize's cultivation spread first south into South America and the Andes about 6,000 years ago, before beginning to spread significantly northward about 4,500 years ago.
Corn cultivation didn't reach New England until about 1,000 years ago as Native Americans slowly developed strains that could mature in the shorter northern growing seasons. The development of corn cultivation, and the ability of corn to be dried and stored, was a major driving force for many of our Native American tribes to eschew a transient lifestyle following food sources with the seasons and begin adopting a less nomadic lifestyle, eventually forming permanent settlements. As cultivation became more prevalent, corn became a staple of many of our Native American peoples. Corn was dried before the winter and was either reconstituted into hominy or ground into corn meal for any number of uses. Dried corn was essential for planting the following spring.
By the time the Pilgrims landed almost 400 years ago in November 1620 as the first Europeans to arrive in New England, the cultivation of corn had become well established among the Native American peoples of the area. Cultivation of corn played a major role in the survival of the Pilgrims of Plimouth Plantation; however, discovery by the Pilgrims of dried corn on Cape Cod was their first aggressive act committed against Native American peoples.
Native Americans had learned to store a winter cache of dried corn underground in corn husk baskets lined with grass to prevent mold and mildew. It took less than four days after the Pilgrims' first landed in Provincetown harbor after 66 days at sea for the Pilgrims to discover and pilfer a buried cache of dried corn while exploring the shores of Cape Cod. That cache on Corn Hill in Truro belonged to the Pamet tribe of the Wampanoag nation. The Pilgrims quickly moved on from the area, so there's no accurate record of how the Pamet tribe fared that winter without the stolen corn; however, we do know the Pilgrims used some of that corn to plant their first crop the following spring.
Today, there are several unresolved debates regarding sweet corn. The first debate is how to eat it off the cob. This is, of course, an extremely serious question that can reveal enormous amounts of information regarding your personality. Are you a neat freak and eat the corn in rows, moving along the cob as an old-fashioned manual typewriter? Are you an artistic right-brainer and eat around the cob circularly turning it like a rolling pin? Maybe you belong in the rabid squirrel category and take random bites off the cob? Finally, do you dispense with the whole eating off the cob thing and strip the cob of its kernels before eating?
My method is to eat it in rows, which probably has a lot to do with when my brother and I were kids watching Looney Tunes. One of those early exaggerated cartoon characters would wildly chomp to the end of each row of corn and a ding from a manual typewriter would sound as he joyously flailed through each row of corn. My brother and I thought it was hilarious and would mimic that character as we ate our corn, dinging as we finished each row. I'm sure our parents were not quite so thrilled.
The next debate is how to cook corn on the cob or whether to even cook it all. People swear by whatever method they use and will stick their chins out defiantly if challenged. The cooking methods include boiling, steaming, poaching, grilling or roasting — with or without the husk — and microwaving. Once again, there are pluses and minuses to each method and may have a lot more to do with what you're serving it with, how many ears you're cooking, the recipe you may be using and personal taste.
Whatever method you use, the most important considerations are to make sure the corn is as local and fresh as possible and that it's not overcooked. Once corn has been picked, it begins a slow steady process of having its natural sugars convert to starch. I say slow, because it was once believed to enjoy sweet corn a pot needed to be put on to boil before picking the corn. Hybridization has significantly slowed the sugar conversion process, but as fresh and local as possible still stands. The other thing that stands is to eat as much corn as possible during its six- to seven-week peak. Once it's over, it's over.
As far as I'm concerned, nothing beats slathering the corn with a quality butter and a good sprinkling of salt, but I encourage you to use a specific salt. If you've never used Maldon salt, start using it on corn on the cob. From England, it is flaked, crunchy, mild and not at all bitter with a distinctive purity.
Lastly, what to do with leftover corn on the cob? If you're like me and buy ears of corn by the half dozen for the two of us, you'll probably have corn left over. Here's a recipe I've been making for years. One tip I will add about stripping leftover corn on the cob of its kernels is it's far less messy to strip them when the ears are cold.
CURRIED CORN AND SHRIMP SALAD
The basic method for this corn salad, mixing cold corn from the cob with a bit of oil, something acidic and other vegetables and herbs, has countless permutations. Try experimenting with tomato, black beans, avocado and lime. Corn with summer vegetables and basil with lemon yogurt dressing is another. For right now, if you enjoy curried dishes as much as I do, this recipe works for me.
For the shrimp:
8 cups water
2 tablespoons Patak's Mild Curry Paste
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound 31-40 EZ peel raw shrimp
For the salad:
1 cup julienned red bell pepper
2 cups corn off the cob
1 tablespoon vegetable or grapeseed oil
1 tablespoon seasoned rice vinegar
1/4 cup Patek's Mild Curry Paste
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup mint, chopped
For the shrimp: Mix 2 tablespoons curry paste, salt and lemon with the water and bring to a boil. Have a bowl with ice water ready for the cooked shrimp. Add the shrimp and cook for 3 minutes. Drain shrimp and plunge the shrimp into the ice water to stop the cooking process. Peel and dry the shrimp once they are thoroughly chilled.
For the salad: Combine the shrimp with the salad ingredients and blend thoroughly. Serve chilled.