The flavor of summer: Transform your sweet corn with these rich recipes

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

There's nothing quite like sweet summer corn.

I have corn growing in my own tiny garden right now, but it wasn't selected for its sweetness. I purchased instead heirloom flint corn seed called Carl's Glass Gem, isolated from a Native American strain and available through the Asheville-based Sow True Seed.

I picked it not for its flavor but for its ability to delight my 6-year-old with its gem-like rainbow-colored kernels. It's best for grinding into polenta, but we can also microwave whole ears in a paper bag with a little fat and salt to make backyard-grown popcorn. 

The corn also delights me, growing tall in my urban backyard. It's somewhat out of place in the city yet reminds me a good enough gardener can coax produce out of a smallish scrap of land with the right combination of luck, weather and soil supplements.

I once tried to grow corn in the rainy, wooded mountains, yielding only comically tiny ears with no more than a couple of kernels amid sparse silk. But here in hot, sunny Nashville, those stalks are as tall as I am, perhaps taller now that some rain finally fell, even though I planted them after the lettuce was already spent in the summer heat. By September we'll push our way through the sunflowers and cut down some ears to snack on in front of a movie.

There is of course still a time and a place for sweet corn, buttered, creamed or grilled. Fortunately, fresh summer corn is abundant in markets right now, and also affordable enough you don't need to grow it at home. For your own sweet corn cravings, try these recipes: classic corn pone, creamed corn and spiced Mexican street corn.

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Grilled Mexican street corn

Grilled Mexican Street Corn

Popular in Mexico City, this grilled corn on the cob gets its richness from a coating of mayonnaise, which is then used to affix salty cotija cheese to the surface. This is a fantastic side dish, but you could also follow the same recipe, cut the kernels from the cob, toss all the ingredients together in a bowl and use the resulting “salad” as a topping for hot dogs or tacos.

Cotija cheese is a slightly aged Mexican cheese with a similar flavor to a young Parmesan. If you cannot find cotija, substitute queso fresco or, in a pinch, feta, instead.

Serves: 4

Hands On Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

4 ears yellow corn, shucked

1/2 cup mayonnaise

Juice of 1/2 lime

1/2 cup crumbled cotija cheese

2 teaspoons chili powder

Fresh cilantro leaves, for serving

Instructions

Heat a grill over medium-high heat. Place the corn on the grill and cook, turning occasionally, until lightly browned on all sides, about 15 minutes. Let cool slightly.

While the corn is cooling, combine the mayonnaise and lime juice in a small bowl. Spread the mayonnaise evenly on the corn, then sprinkle with the cheese and chili powder. Serve garnished with cilantro.

Bacon-studded corn pone

Corn Pone

This recipe comes from Dave Smoke-McCluskey, an Augusta, Georgia-based chef and member of the Mohawk Nation whose mission is to unearth the true history of Indigenous American foodways.

He is also part of Corn Mafia, which produces small-batch hominy grits and masa using traditional methods. Learn more about this unique history and process, and order some masa for yourself, at www.instagram.com/cornmafia.

This is Smoke-McCluskey's modern version of an ancient way of cooking dried corn: hoecakes, because they were often cooked on a hoe over fire. Southerners adapted the recipe, according to Smoke-McCluskey. 

Note: "The pones don’t have to be exactly perfect. Small cracks crisp up nicely for an added crunch," Smoke-McCluskey said. 

Hands On Time: 40 minutes

Total Time: 45 minutes

Serves 4

Ingredients

3 slices of the best bacon you can find, diced

1 cup fresh corn, removed from the cob (frozen is fine)

2 ounces cream cheese

1/2 cup of whole milk

1 egg

2 cups masa harina 

1 teaspoon of salt

4 tablespoons bacon drippings or lard

1 green onion sliced thin

Hot sauce and/or black pepper to taste

A few tablespoons of corn oil for shallow frying

Instructions

In a pan or skillet, slowly render the bacon over medium-low heat. Remove and reserve bacon when crisp, also separately reserving the drippings.

Add 4 tablespoons of the bacon drippings to another pan, along with the corn kernels. Cook corn kernels over medium heat for a few minutes, or until translucent. Remove the pan from the heat. Add the cream cheese to the warm corn mixture, allowing the cheese to soften. 

In a food processor or blender, puree the corn and cheese mixture, along with the milk and the egg, until relatively smooth. 

In a mixing bowl, combine the masa, salt, green onions and reserved bacon. Add the corn puree and mix together until a moist dough is formed, adding more masa or milk to reach the desired consistency. You'll want your dough to loosely hold together. Season with salt, black pepper and hot sauce to taste. 

Form dough into golf ball-sized balls. Flatten the dough balls so they’re about a half-inch thick.

Pour oil into a sauté pan and, over medium heat, slowly bring the temperature of the oil up to about 350. Add your dough disks to the preheated oil. Sauté until lightly browned and crisp, and drain on paper towels. Do not overcook. The insides should retain some moisture and have a slightly smooth texture that goes nicely with the crispy exterior. 

Serve warm as a side dish, or use a bit of that hot sauce and some mayonnaise mixed together with a squeeze of lime to make a quick sauce. 

Classic creamed corn

Creamed corn is beautiful when made from scratch with sweet summer produce. A note on not burning yourself while making this recipe: Be sure to vent the steam from the blender before turning it on. It can create a vacuum effect that will cause the hot contents of the blender carafe to splatter upward.

Serves: 8

Hands On Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 yellow onion, diced

1 large jalapeño, seeded and minced

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 sprig fresh thyme

8 large ears yellow corn, kernels cut off the cob, or 8 cups thawed frozen corn

1 1/4 cup heavy cream

Kosher salt and black pepper

Instructions

In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. When the butter is foamy, add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until soft and translucent, 5 to 7 minutes.

Add the jalapeño, garlic and thyme, and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic is fragrant and golden, about 2 minutes.

Add the corn, and continue to cook until the corn is softened and slightly translucent. Add the cream and bring to a simmer. Continue to simmer until the cream has barely thickened, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and discard the thyme.

Transfer half of the corn mixture to a blender and puree until smooth. Return the pureed corn to the skillet with the remaining corn. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com