My memories of eating freshly harvested corn as a child in Italy involve a field and fire, but no pot or butter. I ate corn at most once a year, if, on harvest day, we happened to visit family friends who grew some to feed their chickens. We roasted ears of corn over an outdoor fire, which was memorable more for the unusual (for my family) camping-style eating than for the flavor of the corn. My appreciation of the latter came after I moved to California.
Sweet corn, a natural variant of field corn that stores more sugar in its kernels, is harvested before it matures, while the sugar content is still high. As soon as an ear is detached from its mother plant, the sugar starts turning into starch. The proximity of field to pot used to be important to preserve flavor, since in older varieties of sweet corn, much of the sugar turns into starch a day after picking. In varieties developed in recent decades, however, a higher amount of sugar in the kernel paired with a slower transformation means the plot-to-pot urgency is less intense.
Mounds of corn ears at a farmers market stall or at a farm stand are irresistible. The ears are mostly zipped up in their husk jackets and their silks flow out at the top like fashionably rumpled hair. The impulse is to strip away the husks to reveal the pale or golden kernels, plump and fresh from the field, but I keep my hands in check so I can roast the fully dressed corn in the oven.
The beauty of this method, which I discovered in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison, is that it requires no preparation beyond turning on the oven. I place the ears exactly as purchased, with husks and silks attached, on a baking sheet large enough to hold them with some breathing room around each one. After roasting them for 20 minutes, I take the sheet out of the oven and let the ears cool slightly before using a knife to separate the kernels from the cob — and tasting a handful as I ply the blade.
I use roasted corn to make a variety of dishes, from soup to salad to cornbread. When combined with cherry tomatoes, the result is a salad with a "summer squared" flavor.
Parting note: The sweetness of sweet corn has nothing to do with high-fructose corn syrup, which is made through a chemical process that transforms corn starch into fructose. And if you are concerned about genetically modified sweet corn (according to a 2013 investigation, a rare occurrence in U.S. grocery stores), ask the farmer or vendor, or purchase organic sweet corn, which by definition is not genetically modified.
Roasted Corn Salad with Cherry Tomatoes, Avocado and Lemon Cucumber
Serves 4 as a side dish
Ingredients and method:
2 fresh ears of corn, still in their husks and with their silks attached (otherwise wrap them in foil before roasting)
2 dozen cherry tomatoes
1 lemon cucumber or Boothby's blonde cucumber
1 ripe medium-sized avocado
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
A light sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sherry vinegar
A few leaves of fresh basil, rolled and cut into a chiffonade
Preheat the oven to 450 F. Place the corn on a baking sheet with a bit of space between ears and roast it for 20 minutes. Let the ears cool briefly, then remove the husks and silks. Working in a shallow bowl or dish, use a knife to separate the kernels and scrapings from the cob. (Save the empty cobs to make stock or broth.)
Cut the cherry tomatoes in half, and peel and dice the lemon cucumber. Dice the avocado. Put all the ingredients in a bowl, add the salt, pepper and sherry vinegar and toss gently. Sprinkle on the basil and toss again. Enjoy.
Simona Carini also writes about her adventures in the kitchen on her blog: