September 11, 2016
At the end of summer my big basket backpack is not sufficient. I need in addition two or three fold-up carrying bags plus the bundle-buggy, the wheeled helper that we car-free people use to haul our goodies home from the market. Toward the end of corn season I sometimes surprise myself by buying two dozen ears of corn.
I don't know how I expect two people to eat twenty-four ears of corn in just a day and a half, but they disappear as if by magic. Sometimes, as a change from corn on the cob, I cook up some of the ears as what my Tennessee mother-in-law, Thelma, called "fried corn." Having done this, I could freeze it, but here's the thing: I don't really want to eat frozen corn in December, even if I'm the one who prepared it. I eat corn in August and September, buying a fresh batch at the market every weekend, stuffing myself with abandon until the farmer says, "This is the last week for corn" and at that point I buy extra ears so I can pretend that corn season will never end.
Thelma made fried corn all summer in the South, where the growing season is long. Here's how you make it: you take a lot more ears of corn than you think you'll need—say, three dozen or more—and you haul them out to the back fence along with a shallow bowl and a sharp knife. You shuck the ears, throwing the husks and silk over the fence for the neighbour's cows. Now you rest one end of an ear of corn on the bottom of the bowl and use your sharp knife to cut off the tips of all the kernels. Run the back of the knife firmly down the cob so that the milky corn juice also falls into the bowl. Turn the cob after each down-stroke until you have "milked" the entire cob and extracted all the goodness from all the ears of corn. Now throw those empty corn cobs over the fence and into your neighbour's pasture, where his cows are apparently delighted to eat them just as they ate the husks.
With all your corn stripped and the cobs disposed of, you bring your knife and your big bowl back inside. Heat a large skillet in which you melt a goodly amount of butter or bacon fat, depending on your taste. When the fat is sizzling, dump in the contents of the big bowl (the liquid and tips of the corn), add salt and pepper and a cup or so of water, milk, or a mixture of half-milk, half-water. Let it cook at medium-low until it is done—maybe twenty minutes. Some southern cooks leave it on low heat for a long time so that a crust forms on the bottom of the pan. That's deliciously decadent, but it isn't the way Thelma made it. She just cooked it till it was done, and I don't remember ever hearing any complaints.
Here's my pared-down version for those who aren't cooking for an army and who don't have access to a neighbour's pasture and cows.
Shuck and remove the silk from* three nice ears of corn**. Cut the kernels from the cob as I describe above, but do it on to a plate in the comfort of your own kitchen. It will be a bit messy, since the kernels sometimes fall every which way and the milk splatters as you run the back of the knife down the cob. But you're only doing three ears, so live with the mess; clean-up won't take long.
Melt three tablespoons of butter (or bacon fat) in a skillet. When the butter is bubbling, pour in the corn, then add half a cup or more of water/milk, along with salt and pepper, and give the whole thing a stir. Cook over medium-low heat for about fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally. If you leave it without stirring for another five to ten minutes the corn will thicken more and will also form a caramelized crust on the bottom. It's as good at room temperature as it is hot, so you can make it ahead. ***
*I hold the ears under a small stream of cold water to facilitate removing the silk.
**Three ears will serve three people nicely as a side dish.
***Fried corn might have been devised as a way to use over-the-hill corn that had become starchy and not sweet. Today's corn, however, seems never to reach that stage. As a result, our modern fried corn is actually sweet enough to use as dessert. So surprise your dinner guests by serving warm spoonfuls of fried corn in pretty glass dishes at the end of the meal. You'll be the talk of the town!
You can see how the starchiness of the corn has made it thick enough to stand up in a mass. I defy you to ear just a single spoonful of it. With today's super-sweet corn, it's like candy.