Navigating the Corn Maze

Michael Dvorak
Minneapolis Farmers Market
312 Lyndale Ave. N.
Hours: 6:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. daily

1934 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis;
(612) 871-0777
Hours: 5:30 p.m.-10:00 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5:30 p.m.-11:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday;5:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m. Sunday

3910 W. 50th St., Edina; (952) 926-0800
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10:00 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

You've seen them, I know you have: Corn wreckers. They stand authoritatively over a pile of sweet corn, mauling, gouging, growling, messing with the husks, tugging at the silk, doing something medical to the kernels.

What the heck?

This question has long bugged me, but in a back-of-the-mind sort of way. I guess, as a child of the modern era, I figured I'd never know. The corn wreckers would live in the world with other people possessing practical, unfathomable knowledge: sailors standing on decks harrumphing at the shapes of clouds; mathematicians whistling appreciatively at chock-a-block blackboards; auto mechanics slickly adding imaginary parts to the bill.

But you live long enough, you learn some things. Like that people are maniacal about sweet corn. Like that sweet corn is one of the finest pleasures of the vegetable kingdom--sweet and fresh and pure, a front-of-the-mouth pop that is one of the basic syllables of the language of American food. Like that whatever those corn wreckers know, I want.

First stop: the Minneapolis Farmers Market, where a quick conversation with Megan, the nice young woman at the Untiedt's Vegetable Farm stand, and Arnell Beckman, the owner of Beckman's Produce, revealed quite a bit. For one, farmers all call it "sweet corn" to distinguish it from "field corn," which is what most farmers grow, for animal feed. Farmers never just call it corn--only city geeks do. For another, sweet corn will ripen only in the fields. And it needs to be eaten within 48 hours of harvest, or the sugar in it turns to starch--that's why sweet corn hasn't (yet) become a commodity flown in from New Zealand or Brazil like apples (which keep for weeks), or bananas (which ripen after picking). Preferably, you get your sweet corn within 24 hours of picking. I learned that sweet-corn harvesting is exceptionally labor intensive: You have to walk down a row of corn, squeeze each of the ears to feel which ones are ripe, and fill a burlap sack as you go. By the time you fill a sack with 60 ears, it will weigh a good 40-some pounds.

Sweet-corn farmers plant a succession of different varieties of sweet corn. Traditional sweet corn goes in the ground first--because it germinates at a lower soil temperature--and ripens first. Those were the ears you saw appearing in mid-July. After that, sweeter, more fragile hybrids with names like Sugar and Cream, Peaches and Cream, Silver Queen, and Jackpot come ripe, and any of those varieties might thrive or sputter depending on the micro-climate experienced in its particular field. The week I tried raw corn from Beckman's stand, Jackpot was sweet and almost meaty, while Sugar and Cream was pallid and undersize. But Bob said wait two weeks and the situation might be reversed. (So if you ever meet someone who insists that some hybrid or other is the best sweet corn, just nod your head and remain confident that you know better. After all, Arnell Beckman has been growing the stuff for so long he remembers the first real sweet sweet corns like tiny Baby Bantam that were popular before World War II.)

Then (finally!), I learned why those people who mess with corn mess with it: When you pull the husks back, you're looking to see that the corn has gotten enough water, if it's been too dry, the rows of kernels won't fill out to the end, and some of the kernels will be shrunken and funky looking. You want big, plump kernels all over the ear. (Sometimes the end of the ear will be snapped off, this might simply be to remove evidence of the corn earworm, who gets in at the end and worms around. You can still have good corn that had a corn earworm, so don't despair.)

Next I learned you shouldn't pay too much attention to the corn silk. While some swear fresh-looking silk is the sign of recent picking, dark corn silk on an ear might mean merely that the corn spent its last days in the field in intense heat, which can intensify the flavor. There are really only two ways to tell if corn is going to be good: Taste it, or stick a fingernail in a kernel and see if it pops--a really fresh corn kernel will burst like a water balloon.  

The first time I tasted raw corn, all I thought was: Yup, raw corn. Over a few weeks I tasted probably four different ears of raw corn. You get the hang of it pretty quickly: You're tasting for an underlying current of pure sugar, which will intensify on cooking. Imagine it like iced tea: When the corn is raw it tastes like iced tea with just a spoonful of sugar; later it tastes like it has spoonfuls more, but unless the corn has that first detectable sugar it won't ever intensify.

After that, it's simply a matter of cooking the stuff. Megan from Untiedt's complains that most people overcook their corn pretty drastically. If you're boiling it, add the corn after the water comes to a boil and cook for only three minutes. That's it! Only three! It will keep cooking once you pull it out anyway, and if you leave it in for ten minutes it will get mealy. Plan on spending $3 to $4 a dozen for corn at the farmers market this year.

A week later, I talked to Frank Spreitzer, the manager of that mecca of corn, the $2 grilled-corn stand at the State Fair across from the bandstand. He told me he won't even eat boiled corn--after 17 years of life with the glories of corn roasting, he's strictly a grilled-corn man. Why is the State Fair corn so good? Because it's fresh. The stand's owners have a farm in the west metro specially commissioned to come up with 20,000 ears of corn that all ripen during the ten days leading up to Labor Day. The corn is picked fresh every day and delivered the next day, at which point it's simply stripped and roasted. All that jazz about soaking your corn or what-have-you? You don't need it, says Spreitzer, all you need is a hot grill and fresh corn. And, preferably, a big Top 40 country band, in case you were wondering. Spreitzer says he never sells as much corn as he does when Randy Travis or Garth Brooks is around--your Smashmouth crowd is really more of a fried-food crowd.

So, the grilling contingent speaks. But of course, there's another camp, a fancy camp where they tend to point out that boiling corn has its own rewards, like corn water, which is only a step away from corn soup and corn sauce. At the Lowry Hill restaurant Auriga, chef Doug Flicker says sweet-corn soup is one of his favorite markers of midsummer, and here's how you make it: Take a dozen ears of corn, and cut off the kernels with a knife. Take your corn cobs, cover them with water, and boil for a few minutes. Remove the cobs, and then add the raw corn kernels to the corn-cob stock, cook for ten minutes, and purée everything in the pot, seasoning with salt and pepper. Flicker says you can add cream or butter but will probably not have to, because the corn will be sweet enough. (A dozen ears should make soup for six or so.) In the restaurant now, Flicker is serving a fancy version of his corn soup ($6): He adds Parmesan, and he squiggles a stripe of red-pepper aioli across the top. The aioli is made with a hot and sweet red pepper grown in the Basque region of France, and the combination of the sweet, fresh, pure taste of corn enhanced with the salt and savor of Parmesan and then contrasted with the hot, rich power of the aioli--truly remarkable stuff.

Remarkable too is how corny Tejas is--bah-dum-sha! Seriously, the Edina Southwest cuisine standard-bearer is absolutely brimming with good uses of sweet corn. Executive chef Mark Haugen uses it everywhere. In the past he's done a whole corn dinner, starting with corn flan (with cornmeal-crusted oysters) and cornbread, proceeding to corn chowder with chorizo, and culminating in "suncorn"-crusted snapper with an heirloom tomato salad in a smoked-corn vinaigrette. "Suncorn" is ground, sun-dried corn. "It's almost like sugar Corn Pops, without the sugar," says Haugen. "We've even made corn ice cream before--it's really good, but it's hard to get people to try it. When corn is at its best, it's so sweet, it goes perfectly with vanilla and cream. It tastes corny but sweet."

On the Tejas lunch menu right now is a grilled-vegetable salad with a sweet-corn sauce ($7.95). I went down to try it--and if you're a vegetarian, you should too. It's a brilliant use of vegetables: Grilled zucchini, carrots, bell peppers, onions, and summer squash are tiled around a grilled half-ear of corn, the plate filled in with that corn sauce. Sweet, fresh, bright, and pure, it is the utter essence of corn, and I would have been happy to drink a bowl of it. The platter comes with tortillas, and the vegetables are sprinkled with queso fresco, with the general idea that you'll make tacos. Me, I ignored the tortillas and took some of Tejas's signature corn-shaped blue-corn sticks and swabbed up the corn sauce with them--I'm telling you, it was a virtual orgy of hot corn-on-corn action.  

But that wasn't the best part.

I think the best part was the knowledge that I can now wreck corn with the best of them, and a new generation is going to be forced to watch me and wonder, for years after: What the heck?...

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Minneapolis Farmers' Market

312 E. Lyndale Ave. N.
Minneapolis, MN 55405


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