Few foods trigger sunlit memories like sweet corn. Maybe it’s an emotional link to the luxurious last months of summer, and childhood moments spent feasting on buttered corn on the cob. At the end of a day of summer fun, your elbows plunked down on the kitchen table, you were in a state of bliss during sweet corn season.
When you try to unravel our undying romance with sweet corn, it’s easy to say we love it because it’s so sweet. In my lifetime, it’s gotten sweeter, “supersweet” in fact. But beyond that, there’s a creaminess to corn that can’t be denied. As you crunch your way through each row of kernels on the cob, you are releasing the rich, creamy juices in the corn, and filling your mouth with luscious delight.
It’s no secret. In fact, sweet corn is designated as ripe at what’s called the “milk” stage. That’s the point at which you can press a fingernail to a kernel and milky liquid bursts forth. Leave it any longer and the sugars will start to convert to starches, making the corn mealy and tough. Supersweet varieties developed at the University of Illinois in the ’80s lack the enzyme that converts sugar to starch, and now rule the market, since they stay sweet and creamy longer. If you buy one labeled as heirloom, it’s not supersweet, so you should cook it that day.
That milky, sweet quality in sweet corn is something you can really put to good use, especially if you are cutting back on dairy. Sure, lots of recipes double down, adding milk to the cooking water, or pureeing the corn with cream for even more creaminess. But why not just let the milk in the corn shine?
For this recipe, be sure to take the time to caramelize the onions. It starts the dish out with a good foundation of flavor. Then, when you add the corn and vegetable stock, cook it long enough to reduce the stock to syrup. The pan will be almost dry. That way, when you purée the mixture, there will be plenty of complexity to complement that simple, milky sweetness.
A sprinkling of sweet red bell peppers gives it a pop of color, and a handful of fresh basil adds even more end-of-summer flavor.
Robin Asbell is a cooking instructor and author of “Big Vegan,” “The Whole Grain Promise” and “Great Bowls of Food.” Find her at robinasbell.com.
Pasta in Creamy Corn Sauce With Frizzled Corn
Serves 4 as side dish.
Note: For another side of sweet corn, sizzle some kernels in hot oil for a crunchy topping with a concentrated bit of corn flavor. If you want to skip that step, the pasta will still be delicious. Here we’ve used whole-wheat fusilli, but cavatappi or penne would be good, too. From Robin Asbell.
• 12 oz. whole wheat fusilli (see Note)
• Cracked black pepper and coarse salt
• Olive oil
• 2 tbsp. olive oil, or butter
• 1 large onion, halved and sliced thin
• 3 ears sweet corn, divided
• 1 tbsp. fresh thyme, minced
• 1/4 c. red bell pepper, finely chopped
• 1 1/2 c. vegetable stock
• 1 tsp. brown sugar
• 1/2 tsp. salt, plus a pinch for the garnish
• 2 teaspoons lemon juice
• 1 pinch cayenne
• 1/4 c. fresh basil, slivered
• 1 tbsp. canola oil
Put on a pot of water for the pasta, and salt the water.
In a medium sauté pan, sauté onions in olive oil for at least 30 minutes. Reduce heat as the onions cook, and stir occasionally. They should be caramel-colored when done.
Cut corn off 2 cobs and add to the onions, along with the thyme and red bell pepper. Cut the corn off the third cob and reserve for the final step.
Sauté the corn and onions for a minute, then add the vegetable stock. Bring the stock to a boil; boil until reduced to a syrupy consistency, about 10 minutes. Purée the corn mixture coarsely in a food processor or blender. Add the brown sugar, salt, lemon juice and cayenne, and mix. Transfer to the same pan and keep warm until serving.
Cook pasta and drain well. In a medium sauté pan, heat canola oil over medium-high heat until it is shimmering, then add the reserved corn kernels. Stir, scraping the pan, until the corn is browned and slightly shrunken. Serve pasta topped with sauce, shredded basil, and the sizzled corn kernels.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories 540 Fat 15 g Sodium 700 mg
Carbohydrates 93 g Saturated fat 2 g Total sugars 9 g
Protein 17 g Cholesterol 0 mg Dietary fiber 12 g
Exchanges per serving: 6 starch, 2 fat.