Sweet Corn: An Essence of Summer Memory

Aug 17, 2017

Try working outside when the weather allows because shucking corn, pulling silk for tea, cutting the kernels off and keeping the cobs for stock, is messy work.
Credit Photo by Ali Berlow

Summer's sweet corn evokes memories and simple deliciousness beyond the familiar grilled or boiled slathered with butter. There's old-fashioned kitchen wisdom in using up the silk and the cobs.

I like my sweet corn cut fresh off the cob and raw. The kernels are sticky with their milk and crunch and there’s no stringy bits between the teeth that way. But I also love it messy, slippery rolling hot over a stick of butter. And I like my corncob tonic, cold from the fridge, sometimes with black pepper and turmeric (because I put that into a lot of things) and I just figured out that I like corn silk water, first thing waking up on a hot summer day and the last thing at night, room temperature. This all might seem a little weird but it is surprisingly gratifying.

This whole corn thing started for me with a recipe. It’s always like that. What the recipe was for honestly, I can’t remember. A chowder, probably. Something unremarkable and lacking in creativity but with this one exceptional set of instructions: “Cook raw corn cobs, kernels removed, in water. Bring to boil, reduce and simmer for 45 minutes. Remove from heat, let cool, strain and store in the refrigerator. Keeps for up to a week.”

In the night kitchen, a baker's dozen of corncobs (kernels removed) yields about 1 1/4 gallons of cob stock or tonic, for cooking or for drinking. This batch I simmered with chilles.
Credit Photo by Ali Berlow

Before then I’d always looked at cobs as just the scrappy armature, something to deal with, to get at the kernels. Cobs were only bound for the compost or slipped under the picnic table for a dog to chew on.

But now in my kitchen, simmering the exposed cobs into a stock, a tonic, is like using up the bones from a chicken. It’s old-fashioned kitchen craft and wisdom to get as much out of a thing as you can. I like that.

I was also really surprised by how much I liked that one particular flavor. The opaqueness of the cob stock as a drink - naturally sweet and chilled - is much more satisfying than any bottle of vitamin water or iced tea. I use it in cooking rice, or add it to a braising liquid, or a cold soup. It also adds another subtle dimension to pasta sauce made with fresh field tomatoes, onions and butter. And stock from corn cobs feels like it’s free, a bonus round. And then that wispy corn silk, floating and swirling around all by itself in the stockpot, they are lovely like a secret. Because after straining the strands of silk out and funneling the remaining water into a mason jar, the origins of the infusion are nearly invisible to anyone but me.

In herbalism, corn silk, which is a diuretic, was used as a tea for cystitis, gonorrhea, gout and rheumatism, according to the ‘Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs’. That was the last place I ever expected to find an entry for sweet corn.

This season on the Vineyard, the corn seems underweight and not as hefty, probably because of the long, cold, wet spring we had. But the flavor is always there even if the kernels are small.

This is going to be the summer that I remember learning to love my kitchen and cooking again. When I looked at something so ridiculously familiar to me, like sweet corn – one ingredient, one flavor - but then to see it again in different lights – it became more subtle - still singular - yet vivid and luscious.