Small, Good Things: A Kernel of Truth

By Joe Dizney

“Farm-to-table” has become such an overused marketing cliché that it’s easy to forget the phrase used to directly address the way we consume things. It encompassed a mindfulness of place and season — food grown or raised, locally, by people you might conceivably know, and sold, prepared and eaten in season — in its own time — with a sensitivity, reverence and conscious intent for all that encompasses.

This is a roundabout way of saying the first of our sweet corn is making its way to the greenmarket. If there’s one crop (outside of tomatoes) worth celebrating, it’s sweet corn. The Pueblo Indians thought so highly of it that they considered it the fifth element: earth, air, fire, water … and corn.

Maïs Provençal: sweet corn with a French accent (Photo by J. Dizney)

Generally, field corn (know as dent, flint or flour corn) is grown and treated as a grain. An economic and industrial commodity, it is dried and ground for corn meal, grits or polenta, but has a much more complicated life as animal feed, fermented alcohol, processed oil, sugar or syrup, cornstarch and God knows what else. (I read a reference suggesting it’s part of embalming fluid! Truly cradle to grave …)

Summer sweet corn is cooked, eaten and gloried in — at least in these parts — as a vegetable. And the quicker one gets it from the field to the table, the sweeter and more glorious it is. For cooking, all that is required is a brief dip in and out of hot, unsalted water (heat sets the sugars but salt toughens the skins). As for eating, apply a generous slathering of butter, a pinch of salt and grinding of pepper and you’re good to go.

As a vegetable, fresh sweet corn can have another life. I recently had a small dish — just a tease, really — of corn, served as a side dish to the exceptional lobster roll at Dolly’s Restaurant on Garrison’s Landing. I obsessed on it for a couple of weeks. It’s no surprise that it came from the kitchen of Shelley Boris, who was farm-to-table before it was a thing, and is the closest thing we have locally to a vegetable whisperer.

Shelley Boris at Dolly’s (Photo by J. Dizney)

Having plied her skills semi-privately at Fresh Company and the Garrison Institute and published a great artifact of that experience in her Fresh Cooking seasonal cookbook, she humbly but hazily credits this deceptively easy recipe to Mireille Johnston’s Cuisine of the Sun: Classic Recipes from Nice and Provence.

France’s culture of corn is marginal, white sweet corn being planted primarily as a grain for use in fattening ducks and geese for foie gras, or as the basis for a sweet polenta-like dessert called millas. But the seasoning and preparation of this dish is 100 percent Provençal — a quick toss in a white wine bath infused with garlic, thyme and bay leaves, dressed only with salt, pepper and a glug or two of good olive oil — and is at once simple and sophisticated.

Shelley’s primary caveats are: 1. Use fresh garlic (i.e., straight from the field), if possible, for a milder flavor; and 2. Be sure to use a dry white as fresh corn needs no additional sweetness.

Shelly suggested that this side-dish-not-quite-salad has another life tossed with sliced summer squash, green beans and roasted butternut squash in any combination as a variation on succotash. I say it would sit nicely atop a bed of fresh or wilted greens.

It may not be French but it’s certainly honest and tasty.

Maïs Provençal

Makes six servings

4 large ears fresh corn, kernels cut from the cob (about 4 cups)
½ to ¾ cup dry Italian white wine
2 cloves of garlic (or more if you like, preferably fresh), peeled and sliced very thin. (A mandoline is made for this; just watch your fingers.)
8 to 10 sprigs fresh thyme
3 to 4 bay leaves
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a small saucepan over low heat, simmer the sliced garlic, thyme sprigs and bay leaves in white wine until the garlic slices are transparent (about five minutes). You want to burn off the wine’s alcohol, not reduce the liquid. Remove from heat.

Transfer wine-garlic-herb mixture to a large skillet and add 3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil. Turn heat to high/medium-high and add corn. Cook quickly, stirring constantly for a minute or two until the corn is just cooked through, colored and hot.

To serve hot: Transfer to a serving bowl and remove bay leaves and thyme stems. Add another glug or two of olive oil and season to taste with salt and pepper.

To serve at room temperature: Transfer corn to a sheet pan to cool. Discard bay leaves and thyme stems. When cool, transfer to a bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Shelley Boris adds blanched, chilled and sliced green beans, cubes of roasted squash or summer squash (or all three) to this for a kind of succotash. Fresh shell beans and/or cherry tomatoes might be welcome additions, too.

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