Sweetcorn

By Sue Quinn

Sweetcorn is Summer in vegetable form: the rows of sunny yellow kernels literally burst with juicy flavour in your mouth.

Slung on the BBQ and cooked until nicely charred all over, daubed in butter and stippled with black pepper, sweetcorn on the cob is arguably one of summer’s finest treats.

It’s a variety of maize with a naturally high sugar content – thus the sweetness. And unlike field corn, a kind that is harvested much later when the kernels are dry, sweetcorn is picked immature. This means the kernels (sometimes known, pleasingly, as niblets) retain their milky juices.

All the natural sugars that make sweetcorn delectable turn to starch quite quickly once picked. So, to enjoy it at its best, sweetcorn needs to be eaten as fresh as possible. (Frozen or tinned sweetcorn are lovely alternatives but really do lack the depth of flavour and succulence of fresh.)

Ideally, buy sweetcorn when it’s still in the husk, the stringy green outer coat that’s nature’s own plastic wrap and keeps the kernels fresher for longer. If you’re blessed with a BBQ, leave the husks on and soak the cobs for 10 minutes before placing them directly on the hot grill, turning regularly until tender. (No husks?? Just wrap in foil and smuggle a knob of butter in while you’re at it). Or, you can simply boil the cobs (without husks) in water until tender.

In truth, sweetcorn cobs need no more embellishment than salt, ground black pepper for sharp hot bite, and lots of butter. But because sweetcorn is, obviously, sweet, it covets flavour that contrasts with and enhances its own.

Deeply savoury umami notes are a delicious foil to the sweetness, so try making flavoured butters for slathering on sweetcorn cobs while they’re still hot. Beat salted butter with any of the following: miso paste, crushed garlic, chopped chilli (fresh or jalapeños are great, or a squirt of sriracha sauce), grated parmesan cheese, chopped anchovies, fresh herbs and/or lemon and lime zest. Top the cobs with the butter and serve alongside barbecued meats and a crunchy coleslaw.

If you prefer not to eat sweetcorn typewriter-style on the cob, there are many tasty ways to cook and enjoy the kernels. First up, though, you need to remove them from the tough central core. You can quickly char the cobs in a griddle pan first, if you love a bit of smoky flavour, or take them off before cooking. Just remove the husks and any stray threads and stand the cob flat-end down on a chopping board. Using a sharp knife, slice down the length of the cob as close you can to the core.

What you do with the kernels next depends on what you fancy eating.

Spanking fresh corn kernels don’t need cooking – just toss them into a salad with leaves and vegetables of contrasting textures and flavours. Or add them to a punchy salsa for stuffing into tacos, burritos or serving alongside roasted meats. Just add the kernels to a bowl of finely chopped tomatoes, black beans, red onion, garlic and chillis, and a splash of white wine vinegar and lime juice. Cumin is optional but lovely. In fact, corn kernels are often served with beans (consumed together they make a complete protein) in the southern American dish, succotash.

Sweetcorn chowder and hake

Sweetcorn kernels make a beautiful soup. Simply toss into the soup pot with other veg for colour and bursts of succulence. Or try a thicker heartier soup. Gently fry a chopped white onion in olive oil and a pinch of salt. Once very soft and tender, add chopped garlic, a teaspoonful of smoked paprika, some chopped fresh thyme and cook for a few minutes longer. Add the kernels from three corn cobs and four large potatoes peeled and diced. Add enough stock to cover completely (make it fish stock for a seafood chowder vibe) and simmer until tender. Blitz until smooth (or leave some texture if you like) and add a splash of cream or crème fraiche. Season with salt, black pepper and lemon juice. Top with grilled fish if you like to make a properly hearty meal.

Sweetcorn chowder and hake

A superb use for kernels is to incorporate them into pancakes or vegetable fritters: just throw some into the batter. Such pancakes are very good served with black bean salsa described above.

Sweetcorn pairings: butter, cream, pepper, white or black beans.

Sue Quinn

Sue Quinn is an award-winning food writer, journalist and cookbook author. Her articles and recipes regularly appear in national newspapers and magazines, including the Telegraph, The Sunday Times, the Guardian, delicious, The Washington Post and BBC Good Food magazine. She has written fourteen cookbooks on a range of topics, from Japanese and Spanish cuisine to children’s cookery and vegan food. Her latest, Cocoa: an exploration of chocolate, with recipes, was published by Quadrille in 2019 to wide acclaim. In 2018 Sue won the Guild of Food Writer’s Award for articles showcasing British food producers, and in 2016 she received the Fortnum & Mason Online Food Writer Award for her work in the Guardian and the Telegraph. Sue has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme and Woman’s Hour, and Channel 4s’ Sunday Brunch. In 2019 she was awarded a bursary from the Guild of Food Writers to research the life of British Food Writer Florence White. Trained as a journalist in her native Australia, Sue now lives by the sea in Dorset with her husband, two teenage children and a loveable hound Cookie.

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