Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Best of FriedOkra: Sweetness Unrivaled

This post orginally published last year about now. I'm happy to experience the Illinois prairie's beautiful bounty again for the third time, and delighted to share its beauty with you in this post and a favorite summer recipe.

Enjoy, y'all.

Corn season's upon us out here in the Illinois countryside. It's my second corn season here and I think I'm getting the hang of it. We've eaten corn for dinner 4 of the past 6 nights and we're having it again tonight. Upon its arrival in town, this fresh, taught-knuckled treat becomes the first invited guest to almost any family supper, barbeque or picnic. No need to ask if there'll be corn, only who's bringing it this time.

Just as the cornstalks themselves, stretching nearly seven feet up at maturity, temporarily re-paint the pastoral setting of the prairie in lush, crisp, rolling greenness on vast fields that spend the rest of the year crouched low in drab stillness or smothered beneath a heavy blanket of snow, the fruit of the corn brings a new seasonal purpose and agenda to the people who grow it and gratefully eat it. I've watched 20 or more Fresh Sweet Corn for Sale signs appear along my familiar routes through the country-side, and the farm wives and children - whom I've only ever seen in my mind's eye as I've passed by - now sit together under steel-framed funeral tents behind ten-foot tables stacked high with mountains of corn, still in its pale green husks.

Even the local police fell enough stalks to carve out car-sized notches into the edges of the corn fields around town. They slouch in their cruisers and switch on the radar, lying sleepily in wait for heavy-footed locals and unsuspecting strangers. Friendly conversation nearly always includes a reference to a recent superlative corn-eating experience, and a serving of corn to out-of-towners comes with a nod out back, to the fields right there. This corn is fresh. I watched it planted... the same rains that patter on my windows at night water the roots of those stalks, and the same sun that freckles my shoulders gave this corn its unrivaled sweetness.

Neighbors leave home daily to run by Tom's (the farmers' market and nursery, just across this field from home) to bring home the family's nightly ration of day's harvest. We pet Susie the dog's head and eye the last of the fresh strawberry pies in the cooler and smile to see the hay bales and chrysanthemum plants and pumpkin bric-a-brac around the corner on carts, ready to be put into their places, reminding us that as we eat our last ears of corn, we'll be heralding the arrival of fall.

Corn season will fade into the russet autumn, the farmers will clear the stalks away to reveal the rich black soil that fed them, and we'll pass by those quiet, still fields for nine months before tiny new shoots appear.

A favorite corn recipe of mine:

Summertime Risotto Recipe courtesy Emeril Lagasse, 2003

2 ears sweet summer corn, kernels removed and cream pressed from the cobs
6 cups water
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup finely chopped sweet onion
1/2 cup finely chopped green bell pepper, seeded
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 cup finely chopped tomato
1/4 cup finely chopped green onions, green tops only
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/3 cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh basil chiffonade

With a sharp knife remove the kernels from the corn cobs, then run the back of the knife down the cob pressing out the cream and reserving it with the kernels. Cover the cobs with water and bring to a boil and let simmer for at least 30 minutes. Keep water warm.

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil and butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion, bell pepper, thyme and corn kernels and saute until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the arborio (without rinsing) and cook, stirring constantly, until it becomes opaque, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the wine and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice has completely absorbed all the liquid.

Begin adding your corn stock in 1/2 cup increments, stirring constantly and letting the rice completely absorb the liquid between additions. After 15 minutes add the shrimp, tomatoes and green onions. Cook about another 5 minutes, until rice is al dente. (You should use about 5 cups of corn water.) Add 1/2 cup of the Parmesan, heavy cream basil and stir well to mix. Season, to taste, with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve with remaining Parmesan at table.

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  1. Brings back my own memories of when we moved here and our new house was backed up to a farm. The corn was high and we "borrowed" a few ears for dinner one of those first nights, before living here even long enough to meet the neighbor that grew it. It was absolute HEAVEN. The best corn I'd evahhh eaten, picked, shucked and boiled in a matter of minutes. As it turned out the farmer and his wife never had any kids and we (and our three younguns) became part of their family. From then on out, it was fresh corn, potatoes, green beans, limas, tomatoes, onions, even broccoli... and all things fruit as well ... in abundance, so I learned how to can ..... and we eventually told them how we "borrowed" those first few ears of corn and wondered if we'd get shot at while doing it. And for the record, we NEVER eat corn on the cob without Spice Island (the ONLY brand to use) Old Hickory Smoke Salt ...... family tradition on my husbands side .... my kids are grown now and must have it themselves. The tradition lives on.

  2. Ode to Sweet Corn, by Fried Okra.

    I'm hungry now. And it's not even 9:00 AM. Thankfully, I know I'll have some AWESOME fire-grilled corn this week, dripping in butter, at the Minnesota State Fair.

  3. You perfectly described this time of year here in our town! Heading to Tom's today for our corn tonight! (Only have had it once so far this week!)

  4. I love the sweet fresh corn and a giant red tomato or two in the summer.

    Too bad summer is winding down, I do think it is my favorite season!!