Sweet perfection

July 16, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

Few signs of summer are surer - and even fewer taste better - than sweet, fresh corn on the cob.

Sure, you can freeze it, cut it off the cob and can it, put it in soups, casseroles - enjoy it year-round.

But nothing compares to the sweetness of a freshly harvested and husked ear of the all-American vegetable.

Corn is native to the Americas. No one in Europe knew about it until explorers crossed the Atlantic. Corn already was growing from Canada to the southern tip of South America.

The many varieties of sweet corn are hybrids - developed from crossing two other varieties. Names for the results are descriptive: Sundance, Bodacious and Incredible.


The Lehman family has been growing sweet corn for 15 years. Forty to 50 acres of the Downsville farm is in sweet corn - about 20 different varieties.

The Lehmans also sell it - about 9,000 dozen ears per season - at a roadside stand staffed by family members. In a recent telephone interview, Ivan Lehman said he expected to open Tuesday or today.

He had just finished planting a new crop. Usually, planting is staggered between mid-April and July, but the cool, wet spring delayed things.

In this area, it takes 60 "degree days" - enough days of sufficient temperature - to ensure appropriate development.

All Lehman corn is hand-picked daily.

There's no real science to knowing when it's ready, Ivan Lehman says. "You get a feel for it."

"I just grab an ear off," says Lewis Lehman, Ivan's father. He tastes it in the field. He likes a variety called Sweetie 82, a yellow corn. Ivan Lehman is partial to a bicolor corn - with both white and yellow kernels - called Mystique.

The window of opportunity for good corn on the cob is not wide. If the corn gets too old, it loses its flavor. "It becomes starchy. It becomes bland," Ivan Lehman says. If it's too old, he won't pick it.

If you don't have a garden, but want to make sure it's as fresh and flavorful as possible, follow this advice from Maryland Cooperative Extension:

  • Examine the kernels carefully. To test for juiciness, press on one with your fingernail. If fresh, a milky juice will squirt out. Discolored or shriveled kernels, dark or dried corn silk and dull or yellowed husks are signs that the corn is not fresh.

  • Avoid corn sold on displays exposed to direct sunlight or high temperatures. Heat speeds the process that makes corn starchy. In just one day, corn stored at 86 degrees will lose half of its sugar; at 68 degrees, 26 percent of the sugar is lost.

  • Select cold cobs with fresh-looking green husks that have tassels. Make sure they are free of worm damage. Cobs with small, shiny kernels are generally sweeter and more tender that those with large, deep yellow, dull kernels.

  • Corn on the cob is best eaten as soon as possible. If you're not going to eat it immediately, store it in the husk, in the refrigerator. Husk just before cooking, but if husked, refrigerate corn in a plastic bag.

  • Cook with or without the husk. Corn can be boiled, steamed, microwaved or cooked in the oven or on the grill. Husked corn is sometimes wrapped in aluminum foil before baking or grilling.

  • Boiling: Avoid adding salt to the water. Do not overcook.

    Immerse the ears in boiling water and cook for three to four minutes for small ears, five to seven minutes for larger ears. Cooking time depends on the number of ears to be cooked and the size of the pot, says Lynn F. Little, family and consumer sciences educator for the Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County. Start timing when the water boils after corn is added.

    There is some debate on length of cooking time. Little, who writes a weekly column for the Herald-Mail, prefers corn cooked from 10 to 12 minutes. Irene Lehman, Lewis' wife, Ivan's mother, recommends no more than three minutes.

  • Oven: Cook for about 35 minutes at 425 degrees.

  • Microwave: Cook on high for about three minutes; let sit five minutes before serving.

  • Steaming: Place husked corn in a kettle with small amount of boiling water. Cover and steam five minutes.

An Internet search reveals a wide variety of recipes for corn on the cob. Adventurers might want to try some of the recommended variations - horseradish, Cajun, Jamaican jerk seasoning, corn on the cob with lime and cheese.

But why mess with perfection?

Well, maybe just a touch of butter.

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