Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Monday, August 4, 2008

In Defense of Corn-This Omnivore's Dilemma

[Sidebar: Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery? I sure hope other food bloggers think so. Most of my recipe inspirations come from the things other people are trying out on their sites, and whether I tweak a recipe or reproduce it step by step, I link to the original and give credit where credit is due. Could I call anything I am currently cooking an "original" recipe? Probably not. How about you? Onward!]I am one of those people who often carries guilt for many of the offenses of the world, whether I am directly involved or not. Once I find out about some transgression I feel implicated by my knowledge - my own version of "ignorance of the law is no defense".After I read Michael Pollan' Omnivore's Dilemma and understood how prevalent corn, or more accurately, processed corn by-products, have become in the manufactured pseudo-foods behind a lot of today's health crises, I thought back to all the corn on the cob I had enjoyed growing up, and I felt more than a few pangs, honestly. 

Clearly corn itself is not at fault, those honors go to agribusiness and a tendency towards ignoring ingredients and placing blind trust that we wouldn't be sold anything that would hurt us, to eat. But this is about an emotional response, not an intellectual one, and the demons behind my temporary avoidance of corn looked like that old familiar guilt by association. 

While avoiding corn might be prudent during cold weather months, we are eating seasonally around here, and once local summer corn began to show up in the market I knew I needed a killer corn recipe to exorcise those avoidance demons and get me back into the game.  Cob of Evil or not, I really truly love love love corn.  

Enter the Exorcist: Grilled Corn Salad with Cotija Cheese and Lime

As so often happens, the inspiration from this sprang from a recipe from another food blogger on the web. This recipe for Grilled Corn Salad with Queso Fresco and Lime, was a recent post I spotted at a site I recently bookmarked as I found myself checking it near daily, the visually striking bitchincamero blog, written by the irrepressible Melissa Camero Ainslie.As Mel is currently living in Miami, Florida and I am in Central Texas, the weather and population mixes are proving similar enough that most of her recipes are suitable for our temperatures and typically call for ingredients I can easily find. Win/win.

I find her approach to food and eating similar (she's not afraid of bacon or ice cream), and her recipes avoid the need for hours spent in the kitchen or expensive single use equipment. Beyond that I sincerely appreciate that she goes to the trouble to explain the process behind preparing each dish, often breaking it out step by step, which helpfully guides a first try for an amateur like me.

Last but not least, in her write up of this salad she mentioned how she appreciates a recipe where you can have tongs in one hand and a beer in the other. She had me there. After reading that I knew I had just the right recipe to banish my corn guilt.

I didn't recall seeing a number of servings given, but guesstimated that 1 ear of corn would generate one serving of salad. I wanted enough for two so I began by cutting the ingredient amounts roughly in half.

If you've read here much, you know I am all about using up what I have on hand. So for starters, while I was willing to buy the corn, I did a quick pantry/refirigerator survey to see what I already had and what might sub in for ingredients in the original recipe. I determined I could swap out cotija cheese for queso fresco, an organic sweet onion remnant from the last CSA basket for the green onion, a home grown jalapeño for the serrano and and some basil also from my garden for the cilantro.So here is my version of the recipe, prep notes included, which I served on a bed of baby arugula fresh from the Farmer's Market, alongisde a reheated chimichanga and pieces of one of our few (the proud!) home grown tomatoes. The peppery arugula was a great base for the sweet-salty salad, and tempered the bite of the lime dressing perfectly. Here goes:

2 ears of corn, husks on
1 tablespoon olive oil
juice of one medium lime
3-4 ounces of crumbled cotija cheese (I am a big cheese fan so I didn't halve this one!)
1/4 cup finely chopped sweet onion
pinch salt
1/2 jalapeño pepper, seeded, membrane removed, minced

Set your grill at the appropriate heat for roasting vegetables. Know your grill - if you are using an outdoor grill, medium heat is suggested. I used an indoor grill so I set it at the highest heat. While the grill heats, soak your corn in water to wet the husks.

Place the corn, husks on, on the grill and cook for 5-6 minutes, or until they develop grill marks, turning every minute or so.While corn is grilling, combine other ingredients in a medium sized bowl. Remove corn from heat, peel back the husks, and return corn to the grill, cooking until a nice brown char develops all around. Turn the corn every 1-2 minutes. In the original recipe it was suggested that this would take another 7 minutes or so. I found it took twice that on my grill, although in a real Homer Simpson "D'oh!" moment I switched the orientation of the cobs from laying them horizontally across the grate to vertically so the corn would settle in closer to the heating element and not roll so easily.Once your corn is nicely colored, [patience here - the grilled corn taste is what all the fuss is about] remove from heat, let cool a bit, and remove the kernels from the cob. bitchincamero's post linked to Simply Recipes, another great food blog written by Elise and three others, a place I regularly drop in for inspirarion, for some wonderful tips for corn kernel removal here.Toss the kernels with the other ingredients and serve.Serves 4 as a side [or 2 if you are me and my husband and nobody is watching]

Because the star of this salad is the grilled corn and my substitutions were very close to the original ingredients, I was pretty confident the results would be good, but would they be great? Would this salad merit the ranking bitchincamero gave hers in the title of her post of "favorite"? .I'd say ohhhhh yeah. We ended up with such a delicious result for our lunch yesterday that my husband fetched the rest of the salad not originally plated right out of the kitchen in it's bowl and then we sat and devoured the rest of it on the spot.

I'm still not in favor of using corn as the generator for by-products to sweeten, thicken, and otherwise modify nearly every processed food in your neighborhood supermarket. Nor do I support taking corn out of food production to fuel vehicles. I am still not OK with the idea that our federal government should subsidize the fence to fence planting of genetically modified corn and I think the use of pesticides and fertilizers to support those farming practices has to stop.

On the other hand, a few ears of summer corn, especially if you can get them from a local farmer, is part of what makes July and August a special time of the year for seasonal eaters. All things in moderation, yeah?

Turns out maybe I can have have some sweet corn, and eat it too.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the kind words!! This is a great post. I read the Omnivore's Dilema too and have avoided HFCS ever since. I even have my husband scrutinizing food labels now!!

Btw, I was inAustin for the first time ever this March and absolutely loved it! Really jealous of all your delicious Mexican food :)

TexasDeb said...

It's true- here in Austin we are blessed with an abundance of great food choices. If you ever head back this way be sure to give me a shout and I'll share with you my favorite place for a prickly pear margarita. Enjoy Vancouver!