Driving through the plains of Nebraska, there’s nothing but cornfield after cornfield for miles. I know the sight very well, having grown up in the Cornhusker State. I looked forward to Grandma’s corn pudding with jalapeños and canned oysters on our Thanksgiving table, and creamed corn got us through winter until the year’s harvest of fresh sweet corn arrived in early July and stayed through late September.
On those hot summer nights in my hometown of Columbus, Nebraska, we’d pull into a strip mall parking lot off Highway 30 where the Daniels family sold their daily harvest out of the back of a truck; everyone in town knew that theirs was the sweetest sweet corn around. We’d take home a dozen ears—two per person for our family of five, plus a couple extra for good measure. Sitting on our screened-in porch overlooking the lake, my sister and I would shuck the ears over a paper grocery bag, dropping in the husks, and then picking out every last string of silk threaded between the golden kernels. My mom would boil the corn in a big pot of salted water. When it was done, we’d stick yellow plastic holders in the ends of each cob, and take turns spinning the steaming corn over a stick of butter, coating them in a thick sheen.
As I got older and interested in cooking, I started exploring the versatility of my favorite grain (or is it a vegetable?)—corn chowder with bacon and chives, spicy corn salsa, griddled corncakes topped with crème fraîche and smoked salmon. I’ve found that even raw corn can be a delicious addition to a salad of tomatoes and peaches when it’s truly fresh, before the sugars convert to starch. But my hands-down favorite way of cooking it is on the grill, to caramelize those sugars and get a deeper, sweeter corn flavor. That, plus I prefer to cook outside over a fire throughout the months when it is in season.
Though I’d cooked corn in seemingly every which way, it took a trip to Mexico earlier this year, where maíz is truly king, to fully understand the breadth of its utility. With a group of food-industry friends, I consumed almost nothing but corn-based meals for days. We were in Oaxaca for an immersion in la comida.
On a small, hilltop farm outside of Teotitlán del Valle, Doña Aurora taught us to make masa from dried heirloom maize by first softening the hard kernels in limewater using the pre-Columbian nixtamalization process, then grinding it to a thick paste on a metate. We turned the masa into tortillas, tostadas, and memelas, all cooked on a clay comal over a wood fire.
The next day, at a market stall in Ocotlán, our breakfast was prepared by a woman who goes by the nickname Frida and styles herself nearly identical to the 20th century Mexican artist of the same name. She cooked a veritable breakfast feast that began with hot chocolate, atole, and fresh pressed green juices, and continued with crisp fried flautas, handmade tortillas, and a tasting of the region’s celebrated moles. Between passing plates of enchiladas and estofado came a surprise: Frida had wrapped a local semi-soft goat cheese in fresh corn husks—those things I’d been throwing out by the bagful my whole life—and placed it over a charcoal grill. Unwrapped, the cheese was soft and charred at the edges with a faint smoky flavor. I was taken aback by its utter simplicity and ingeniousness, and by the incredible taste.
Back home, I used Frida’s technique with the French-style chèvre that’s easy to find at any supermarket. The log-shaped goat cheese perfectly replaces the corn cob in the husk. (Here are the step-by-step instructions on how to wrap the corn husks around the goat cheese
.) I also grilled the corn to make a relish for topping, with just a touch of heat, lime juice, and plenty of fresh herbs. With the smoky essence of the husk infused into the hot molten cheese, a generous drizzle of honey melting in, and that charred sweet corn relish, all spooned onto a hunk of crusty bread, plus a bottle of pink bubbly (high in acid to stand up to the tartness of the dish), a patio, and a pile of friends, it’s the perfect pre-dinner snack on a summer evening. This Nebraska girl couldn’t be more pleased.