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Chef Foster: Corn is an easy target for critics, but in its basic form, can add a lot to your meal

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About this time of the year I start to write about corn.

Usually I warn about the evils of what I like to call “big corn” and its effect on the modern American diet. I rail about corn being the basis of everything we eat, about how we season with corn, we bind with corn, we preserve with corn, all to our detriment.

I’ll admit, it’s an easy column, it’s always easier on the soapbox. Lost in all that though is the idea that corn is not inherently bad. There are wonderful thing made from corn; bourbon, grits, pudding, muffins…and I like to eat corn. Not only does it bring back wonderful memories of my childhood, but those memories continue through family vacations with my kids.

Corn is also incredibly versatile. On the cob or off, cooked or pickled, it takes on colors and flavors extremely well without losing its own grassy sweetness.

It’s easy to blame all of our dietary issues on the food. It is, after all, an inanimate object. But in doing so we miss the point entirely. Corn and other raw goods were not meant to be twisted into chemical strands that permeate everything. Corn was a building block of ancient civilizations, sometimes the only stopgap to famine and death. With beans and squash, it formed an agricultural triumvirate that is still used by gardener and farmer alike.

Corn feeds livestock, providing another economic pillar to the United States, and it’s most benign form, is a great fundraiser for local charities in the form of corn roasts or farm dinners. It’s when we twist the corn into so many things that it becomes a dietary pariah, and that’s what I sometimes lose sight of. Corn, in its unprocessed state, is pretty good stuff.

Let’s start with the basics; steamed or boiled corn. I’ve had both and I think my preference for boiled is more emotional than culinary. I remember big pots of corn boiling away mid-summer and the moment you pulled them out it was a scramble to butter, season and eat them before they got cold.

Later in my culinary career, I came across steaming as a cooking method, for corn in particular. Drier than boiling, steaming plumps the kernels just until they’re ready to burst. There is still that rush to butter, but the satisfying slurp of the corn is just a little bit sweeter.

Grilling in the husk, or not, is an extension of the first fire cooked meals and one of the sweetest ways to enjoy corn. I’ve taken whole butter, softened it and folded in chopped shallot, garlic, herbs and a bit of vinegar or lime juice. This compound butter can take on many flavors, some have chilies or curry powder. Once you’ve taken the silk from the cob, you can spread the butter on the raw corn, wrap the husk back around it and slowly grill the corn, turning it periodically on a cooler part of your grill or campfire.

If roasting over a fire is your choice make sure you soak the corn (with husk and minus the silk) in water for up to a half hour, drain and then roast. This technique creates moisture in the corn which steams and then roasts the corn, preventing the kernels from caramelizing too quickly.

In most of these cases, a flavored butter or oil can be used to flavor the corn, thereby eliminating the hurried application after the fact. The only caution I have is to watch the temperature of your fire. Corn is a sugar bomb, especially the newer varieties of sweet corn. Too much fire too quickly will incinerate the ears.

Once we take the kernels off the cob, let’s not forget how much flavor is left on the cob. When I make corn pudding, the cream that I use for the custard base is first warmed for 15-20 minutes with the trimmed cobs. The term “corn milk” is not an idle one. The next time you have trimmed cobs, run your knife blade across the empty cob, and see how much “milk” you get.

Steeping the cobs in the cream is akin to transferring flavor from a stripped vanilla bean to a cream and milk base for ice cream — deep flavor and a rich finish. The niblets of corn, once freed from the cob, become salsa, creamed corn, corn and bean salad, succotash or chow chow. They can be tossed in pasta, cornbread or breakfast pancakes with sorghum syrup. Try a quick sauté of corn, shallots, chanterelle mushrooms and fresh herbs. Finish the sauté with fresh whole butter and enjoy it just as a side dish.

As a final clean and unadulterated use of corn, try blanching and freezing the best of your summer crop. Along with beans, tomatoes and green vegetables corn freezes extremely well, and there is not a better pick-me-up on a cold January day than some corn and potato chowder with a crusty piece of buttered bread.

So consider corn the way you might value a tomato, in its pure, unprocessed form. From its origins as a wayward grass, domesticated by a native people, to the villain of numerous modern documentaries, the one constant with corn will always be how good it is at the source, sometimes even right out of the field.

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John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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