There is an old saying that the two things you should never discuss in general business are politics and religion.
To that list I would like to add one more: pop music from the 80s.
Let me warn you. If you’re not a fan of 80s pop, the next few lines of this column can be confusing. In other words, if the phrase “Knee deep in the hoop” means nothing to you, you might just want to save time and get to the recipes now.
As a proud member of Gen X, the ’80s were my decade. From 1980-89 I went from high school (that’s “Gen X-speak for “high school”) to high school to graduate, I also got a perm, wore day-glow shirts (a la “Miami Vice “) and grooved to Madonna and Duran Duran.
That means I also have very strong opinions about 80s music, and thanks to Facebook, I get to broadcast those opinions to an unsuspecting audience. Take a post I made last week. It was simple and to the point: “What’s the worst pop song of the 1980s and why is it Starship’s ‘We Built This City’.”
Let me give you some background. I have a love-hate relationship with that 1985 hit.
I bought the album. I have memorized all the words. I turned it on when it came on the radio.
Yet 37 years later I am ashamed. The song is stupid. It’s about rebellion, yet the rhythms are incredibly conventional.
The music video – a major medium in the 1980s – is ridiculous and features a shot of Abraham Lincoln pulling out the chorus line “We build this city on rock and roll.” Poor Abe. First John Wilkes Booth, and now this.
Not everyone shares this view, however. Seconds after I hit “Return” on the post, I received a response. It was succinct, “You’re wrong.”
Others quickly chimed in with their suggestions for songs worse than the Starship tune. Chris DeBurgh had a few hits for ‘Lady in Red’. (I agree. It’s awful), as is Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science” (quirky and fun). Others ignored the question and said things like “I hate Duran Duran” (heresy).
All in all, it was a fun discussion, which is why I made the post in the first place. I learned a little more about my friends’ taste in music, and they learned from me why that taste is wrong.
Which brings me to the point of this column. As controversial as ’80s music may be to Gen X, sweet corn can provoke similar reactions in Midwesterners. Most of you, I understand, believe that sweet corn should be boiled and never grilled. It should also not be contaminated with exotic flavors or ingredients such as chili powder or Parmesan cheese.
I’m not here to tell you you’re wrong, but…well…
Frankly, I am like most of you. I like my sweet corn simple. After all, as far as food is concerned, it’s pretty much perfect just the way it is.
Plus, sweet corn season is short, so most of you see no reason to waste those precious ears experimenting. I can’t argue with you there.
Still, if you’re feeling adventurous, I have a few suggestions. Give them a try if you want, or just ignore me. Butter and salt are all you need for a truly great ear of corn.
But trust me on “We built this city.” Any song that contains the word “hoopla” cannot be good.
Preparing your corn
To cook or not to cook…
As I mentioned, the most common way to prepare sweet corn is to quickly cook it in a pan of boiling salted water. If you’re a traditionalist, I won’t get in your way. First, fill a kettle with enough water to completely cover the corn as it cooks. Bring the water to a boil and then add the salt. You will need about 1 teaspoon of salt for every liter of water. Once the water is boiling, carefully drop the corn, being careful not to splash yourself. Boil the ears for 5-6 minutes. Serve immediately with butter and salt.
But cooking isn’t the only way to go. Corn can also be cooked nicely on the grill. The dry heat from the grill adds a flavor nuance that boiling water lacks. In addition, you have the additional advantage that you do not have to heat up your kitchen in the middle of summer.
But should you cook the corn with the husk on or off? Those who prefer grilling hulled corn claim that this allows the sugar in the bare kernels to caramelize and absorb more of the grill’s smoky flavor. This may be true, but in our home we found that grilling the ears with the skin on steamed the corn nicely and produced kernels that were wonderfully tender and more to our liking.
But you have to decide that yourself. Whichever method you choose, get started by setting the grill to high heat. While the grill is preheating, soak the corn in water for at least 10 minutes before cooking. To grill hulled corn, remove the husks and silk and place the ears directly on the grill. The corn will char a bit as it cooks. Turn the ears every few minutes and cook for about 8 minutes until cooked through (use common sense).
Cooking corn with the skin on is much the same. Pull the skin down as if you were peeling a banana, but make sure the skin is attached to the butt at the base. Remove the silk and wrap the peel around the ear again. Some recommend tying the peel in place with string, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Place the corn on the grill and close the lid. Turn the corn every few minutes to ensure even cooking. It takes about 12-15 minutes to cook.
Now it’s time to go through the mirror. An easy way to add a little twist to your sweetcorn is to add some flavor to your butter. We love garlic at home and are looking for the opportunity to add it to everything. Here it’s a great addition to the corn and butter, and this variation shouldn’t be too radical for you traditionalists out there.
- 6 tablespoons butter, soft but not melted
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 4 ears of corn (you decide whether you want to cook the skin on or off)
- Salt and pepper to taste
Mix the minced garlic with the softened butter. Cook the corn however you like and spread it with the garlic butter. Season with salt and pepper.
Again, the main ingredient here is butter, but with a little twist. This recipe, from the August 2003 issue of “Bon Appetit,” is so easy you can mix it up in about five minutes (minus the time it takes to cook the corn, of course). Don’t be put off by the thought of chili powder in the butter. It’s actually a nice subtle accent on the corn that I think most people (even the most prudish ones) will love.
- ¾ cup butter, softened to room temperature
- 2 teaspoons chili powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 8 ears of corn, still in the husk
- Salt to taste
Mix the butter, chili powder, salt, cumin and pepper in a small bowl. Put aside.
Grill the corn as above (use either the husk on or husk off method, that’s your choice). Brush the corn with the chili butter and season with salt.
Grilled Corn on the Cob with Maple-Chipotle Glaze
Okay, now that we’ve taken a baby step, I think we’re ready for something riskier, like this recipe from “Bon Appetit’s” August 2002 issue.
I’ve never been a big fan of maple, so I was skeptical when I started making this corn glaze. What I found was that the syrup actually just tastes sweet instead of “maple-y”. Plus, the chipotle peppers add just a touch of warmth. Best of all, neither overpowers the corn, which remains the star of this dish.
- ½ cup maple syrup
- ¼ cup butter
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 teaspoons finely chopped canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 6 ears of corn, peeled and sides removed (if you want to grill the corn with the husk on, skip the pre-glazing step before cooking. Add the glaze to the cooked corn instead)
Bring first five ingredients to a boil in a heavy small saucepan over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer until glaze has reduced to cup, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes.
Put your barbecue on medium heat. Brush the corn with some glaze. Grill until lightly charred, turning frequently (about 8 minutes). Transfer the corn to a platter and brush with the remaining glaze. Sprinkle with salt if desired and serve.
Windy City Mexican Grilled Corn
Okay, it’s time to get out the big guns. I admit that this recipe from Steve Raichlen’s “Barbecue Bible” doesn’t sound very good at first glance. Who would put mayonnaise on corn, let alone cheese and lime juice?
You’ll have to trust me (as I trusted Raichlen) that this stuff is awesome. No really. The combination of the mayo, cheese, chili powder and lime juice creates a really layered effect. Each flavor creates an amazing harmony that really cannot be described. It’s a little sour. It’s a bit hot (with the chili powder). And it’s a bit cheesy.
Seriously, just try it. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
- 8 ears of corn still in the husk, but with the silk removed
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 1 cup (about 4 ounces) grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
- 3 tablespoons chili powder (preferably Ancho chili powder, but regular chili powder will work too)
- lime wedges
Peel the corn, remove the husk, leaving it at the end of the stem. Remove the silk and then rewrap the corn with the husk. Soak the ears in a pan of water until ready to grill.
Place mayonnaise, cheese, chili powder and lime wedges in separate bowls. Set aside until ready to eat.
Heat the grill to high. Place the corn on the grid and close the lid. Grill until nicely browned on all sides (2-3 minutes per side or 12-15 minutes total). Turn regularly to ensure even cooking.
Place the grilled corn on a platter and serve. Spread the corn first with mayonnaise (as if you were brushing it with butter), then sprinkle with cheese and chili powder. Finish by squeezing with lime juice. You may also want a pinch of salt, but that’s up to you.