Visiting Goshen and Elkhart this summer, one could not but be impressed with the lushness of the corn crop this year. One could smell the sweet corn fragrance even while whizzing by on the blacktop. This is indeed the perfect summer for corn on the cob.
Growing up, the farmwives always planted an ample supply of sweet corn -- my grandmother would put in at least four double rows (about 200’) of corn to feed grandpa and a host of hungry grandchildren. My mom would plant about eight rows (about 400’), not including the row of popcorn that we always planted but never really worked out. The double rows (one on each side of a shallow irrigation channel dug by hoe) would soon be tall enough to hide us cousins from each other as we played tag in the garden (or hid from each other during BB gun wars).
Constant vigilance with a hoe was necessary to keep the corn rows from being overrun by weeds. Small clumps of seedlings would have to be broken up and larger renegade weeds would have to be decapitated with a swift stroke. If the aisles were not wide enough to allow passage by the roto-tiller, one would also have to aerate the soil by hand, using the hoe to break up the top few inches with steady undercutting strokes from one end of the garden to the other. Hot, hot work, but often rewarded with a glass of real lemonade or Grandpa’s favorite, an orange flavored milk shake, straight from the kitchen. Regardless, we were always happy to have been born after the time when even the crop fields had had to be weeded by hand, with no chemical sprays.
More than anything, the smells of the garden were reward for the effort. The sunshine and the activity of harvesting and weeding would bruise the various plants. The sweet smell of corn would mix with the maturing dillweed (dell), broken papakraut (the popular term for summer savory), marigolds (bottabloom), dahlias, gladiolas, zinnias, mint (mintsplaunt), maturing onions, the ever present catnip, and in later gardens, basil, chives, parsley, and tarragon. Cool sweet smells wafted between breaths of hot mint and spicy, peppery textures. Large bumble bees and small furry brown prairie bees would constantly buzz about collecting pollen from pea and bean blossoms, the sheltering caragana bushes, and giant sunflowers (sonnebloom ). Black gas beetles and crickets would scurry about as their protective cover was disturbed, and cranky Daddy-long-legs would lumber about like so many lumbering spaceships from Star Wars or War of the Worlds. Hopefully, there would be few grasshoppers. During infestations, even the gardens would be wiped out by their ceaseless munching.
Grandma’s recipe for corn on the cob was always best. Simply boil the corn in water for three to five minutes, or until soft, adding salt and pepper to taste. Tough corn could be sweetened by adding a little sugar. Soon our plates of fried chicken and mashed potatoes would be swamped with sweet melted butter from the steaming cobs, held tightly by Grandma’s special corn cob holders (small plastic handles with metal spikes or pins that would be thrust into the ends of the cob to protect tiny little fingers from being burnt). Mom came up with her own best way to butter a cob of corn -- simply chill cubes of margerine (or butter) from the store, peel off about an inch of the foil or paper from one end, and set on the table. One simply grabs the stick of margarine by the foil end and slides the open end across the corn cob. Mmmmm good.
Later, as a sous-chef for a caterer in Chicago, I learned how to grill corn on the cob. With its smoky flavor and slightly nutty taste, grilled corn became my easy favorite. Barry’s method was to simply use wet, fresh corn. Simply pull the husks back gently, being careful not to tear them apart or detach them, until the cob is exposed. Remove as much tassel as possible. Many people recommend using butter, but we would rub the cob down with olive oil. Before restoring the husks, I prefer to pepper the corn and add a little garlic salt, along with some fresh herbs such as dill, parsley, and/or basil leaves. Papaukraut is great also. When the herbs are in place, simply fold the husks back into place and twist the tops to help keep them closed. The whole idea is that the moisture from the leaves and the fresh kernels will steam the corn while on the grill. If the husks are too thick, simply pare them down, but I have never really found this necessary.
Preheat the grill and turn back to medium. Place the corn, husks and all on the grill and grill for about 30 minutes, turning occasionally to make sure that the corn cooks evenly. I find it helpful to also flip the corn so that the thickest husks are in the center of the grill. Watch the corn when you first put in on the grill and simply blow out any small flames -- after that, the corn should grill just fine. You can grill to two states -- the first is when the kernels are simply hot and soft enough to eat. I also enjoy corn that is drier and retains more of smoky flavor though the kernels tend to dry out and might bear grill marks. When done, simply eat as you see best. Note that if the corn is not fresh or if you prefer a more steamy preparation, simply soak the corn, husks and all, in water for about 15 to 30 minutes before cleaning.
Finally, I was just messing around in the kitchen and came up with a new tuna salad recipe -- in it, I tried to capture many of the tastes and smells I remember so fondly from the country garden.
Check it out under the recipe tab, and feel free to tweak to own tastes. sdw