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In my childhood home, my mother served corn boiled on the cob at casual meals. For me, it was a summertime treat. I was completely unaware of how indispensable corn was to the diet of the natives of the Americas.
According to Marlena Spieler, author of Flavors of Mexico, corn originated as a wild grass in the highlands of Mexico about 60,000 years ago and "by around 5000 BCE corn seems to have been the basis of the Indians' diet... For some tribes corn gods were more important than sun and moon gods, and life abounded with corn festivals, prayers, dances and rituals." And Lois Ellen Frank wrote in Native American Cooking: "Corn is, and has been for thousands of years, one of the most important foods in the Native American diet. Considered to be the essence of life, corn holds a magical sacredness for the people."
A Mexican acquaintance told me that in the village where he grew up, there often wasn't enough to eat. His family ate what they could grow - mostly corn and beans. Corn was usually eaten in homey soups or stews, or turned into the ubiquitous tortillas, flatbreads which are made from a nonsweet variety of the grain. Indeed, corn is the "center of the Mexican culinary universe," wrote Rick Bayless, the author of Mexican Kitchen: "the old-fashioned everyday rural Mexican diet of lots of beans and lots of tortillas... made folks yearn... for richness and variety." There was nothing glamorous about this diet.
But in cities across Mexico and the US, corn is not just a humble staple anymore. Chefs now pair it with luxurious ingredients for elegant meals. Recently I had the chance to enjoy several stylish corn creations that demonstrated its versatility.
Corn was a highlight at a festive dinner introducing the cuisine of Jason Shaeffer, chef of the new 1500 Ocean restaurant at the historic Del Coronado Hotel on Coronado Island, California, just a stone's throw from the Mexican border. For a delicious side dish, the chef cooked white corn kernels with morel mushrooms and roasted pearl onions and flavored the medley with thyme, chives, shallots and aged sherry vinegar.
Corn and mushrooms are becoming a popular pair among top chefs. San Francisco chefs Nancy Oakes and Pamela Mazzola, authors of Boulevard, saute sweet corn with chanterelle mushrooms in olive oil and butter and season them with fresh thyme. Israeli chef Yoram Nitzan of Moul Yam in Tel Aviv serves seafood on a bed of corn and portobello mushrooms with a beet ginger vinaigrette, according to The Chef's Kitchen by Elinoar Rabin and Zeev Aner (Hebrew).
Don't discard the corn cobs; they have valuable flavor, too. Chef Shaeffer used them to give an intense corn flavor to his creamy new version of the classic American succotash, a corn and bean dish. He simmered the corn kernels with onions, garlic, spicy paprika, bay leaves, butter, cream and milk, moistened the medley with corn broth and added fresh fava beans and chives.
At the restaurant, corn appears even in dessert. The pastry chef, Daphne Higa, told me that she just put a sweet corn flan on the dessert menu. She, too, takes advantage of the cobs' flavor, infusing them along with sweet white corn kernels in hot milk and cream, then turns the strained mixture into a flan (cream caramel) and serves it with a chocolate tamale (steamed pudding) and cajeta (creamy caramel) ice cream.
The kernels of fresh corn in season are far superior in flavor and texture to frozen or canned corn and are worth the effort of cutting them off the cobs. When the kernels are very tender, they're so delicious that I even like them raw in tomato-cucumber-green onion salads. They're also tasty when very lightly cooked so they're still crunchy, and combined with sweet peppers, celery, mustard vinaigrette and diced chicken or Gruyere (Swiss) cheese to make a simple French salad, or, for a light vegetarian entree, mixed with chickpeas, tomatoes, fresh basil, olives, olive oil and lemon juice.
Some people avoid corn because they think it's fattening. Actually, corn is recommended by nutritionists because it's a whole grain. In planning menus, serve it not as a vegetable, but instead of rice or pasta. Corn is a good source of protein and an excellent source of vitamin B6, according to Melissa's Great Book of Produce by Cathy Thomas.
CREAMY CORN WITH FRESH FAVA BEANS
This savory side dish is a simplified version of the corn and bean succotash I sampled at the Del Coronado. For serving with meat, omit the cream and milk or substitute soy milk.
6 ears sweet corn (about 4 cups kernels)
1 cup vegetable broth
1 bay leaf
1/2 to 3â„4 cup cooked fava beans or frozen lima beans
2 Tbsp. butter or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped finely
1 garlic clove, minced
1â„4 cup whipping cream (optional)
1â„4 tsp. hot paprika or cayenne
1â„4 cup milk, or more if needed
salt to taste
2 tsp. chopped chives
Remove corn husks and silk. Place cob on board and cut off kernels, a few rows at a time. To make corn broth, cut 2 cobs in pieces and put them in a saucepan. Add vegetable broth and bay leaf and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes. Strain broth.
If using fava beans, pinch each one to remove the bright green bean from its thick skin.
In a saute pan, heat butter, add onion and saute over medium heat for 5 minutes or until soft but not brown. Stir in garlic, then add strained broth and corn kernels and bring to a boil. Cook uncovered for 3 minutes or until corn is tender to your taste and most of liquid has been absorbed. Stir in cream, fava beans and paprika and simmer uncovered until sauce is thickened and creamy. Stir in milk and heat through, adding more milk by tablespoons if you'd like a moister dish. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding salt to taste. Add chives and serve hot.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.