Image: Getty / Tina Tiller
Image: Getty / Tina Tiller

KaiJanuary 20, 2023

Ingredient of the week: Corn

Image: Getty / Tina Tiller
Image: Getty / Tina Tiller

Cornfields hold versatile place in our collective imagination (wholesome, romantic, spooky…) And corn is equally adaptable in the kitchen: at home in soups, fritters, salsas and salads, on the BBQ or just with butter… mmmm… 

Oh, sweetcorn. The longer my mind lingers on this summery vegetable, the wilder the associations become. Of course, there are summer barbecues, butter melting on plump yellow kernels, crispy corn fritter stacks, the weird gloop that is creamed corn in a can, it’s wonderful high-fibre snack cousins corn chips and popcorn.

Then there’s the terrifying – corn fields in horror movies and Spookers; corn syrup smuggled into every part of the American diet, from soda to chips to bread, sauces, baking, cereal, chicken, and fish.

There’s also the aesthetic. Corn undoubtedly has the most beautiful, glossy blonde locks of any produce. Every time I see someone with soft white-blonde hair I think, cornsilk!

But sweetcorn is so much more than its social connections. For a start, it’s a fascinating mutant.

Corn has the prettiest hair of all the vege. (Photo: Wyoming Paul)

Sweetcorn, the science and anatomy class

What is sweetcorn, actually, and how does it relate to the starchy corn or maize that we use for popcorn, corn chips, tortillas and cornflour?

I went to Wikipedia for answers, and oh boy, what an education. Sweetcorn occurs from a natural, spontaneous mutation in field corn, where the genes which control the conversion of sugars into starch are stunted. So sweetcorn is like X-Men, if X-Men were 6% sugar. (Analogy not provided by Wikipedia).

Next, a rabbit hole: corn etymology class. I ran into the question “what do you call a unit of sweetcorn” recently, and like any language-curious individual, was in a muddle when I realised I didn’t know the answer.

Sure, the little yellow yum bits are the kernels, and you eat “corn on the cob” – but the cob is that hard boney middle bit. The leafy outside bits are the husk, and the beautiful cornsilk (actually this is also amazing) are the pistillate flowers of the corn. But the whole thing? How do you fill the gap in the sentence “I’m going to buy two ‘blanks’ of corn?”

Disturbingly, the answer is an “ear”, which comes from the Proto-Germanic word “akhuz” and means a head of grain (nothing to do with ears of corn looking like donkey ears). I hope your mind has been expanded as mine was at these corny tidbits.

Where to find it

Sweetcorn is gloriously in season right now. At Pak’nSave and New World you can buy one ear of sweetcorn for $1.49, and Pak’nSave also offers four ears for $5. At Countdown, things aren’t quite as rosy – a single ear of corn is $2.20.

A new addition to the supermarket pricing options for Aucklanders – online supermarket Supie. They currently have three ears of sweetcorn for $4.45, slightly cheaper than buying three ears at Pak’nSave and New World.

How to make it terrible

I can’t find a way to hate fresh sweetcorn, really. Instead, some sweetcorn-adjacent gripes.

I am deeply adverse to baby corn. It should be adorable, like drinking a tiny hotel bottle of liquor, but actually the fact that you can eat the whole thing rather than nibbling something miniature ruins it for me.

I also find canned creamed corn quite yuck. Tip: If you’re making sweetcorn fritters or something else that requires creamed corn, just blitz up a can of whole kernels – same effect, without the gloopiness and thickener, and you can control the level of thickness, salt and sugar.

How to make it amazing

There are so many ways to cook an ear of corn well that it’s almost hard to pick – boiling, steaming, microwaving, roasting, grilling, barbecuing. If you have just one ear of corn to cook, microwaving it (husk still intact) for five minutes is a great quick no-dishes option. Otherwise, boil up a big pot of water, shuck those husks, and simmer the corn for 3-5 minutes, until the kernels are bright yellow and tender when you give them a sharp jab with a fork.

From there, smother in butter and a grind of salt, or for some smokiness, lightly grill the corn in a frying pan until each side has little black scorch marks. Eat off the cob (mouth dripping with juice and melted butter), or slice off the kernels and make the freshest corn fritters or corn fried rice of your life.

On cooler days, I’m also a big fan of egg drop and sweetcorn soup, a Chinese classic of wispy beaten eggs in chicken broth, which my grandma made me and my sister all the time growing up. It’s delicious even without the dose of nostalgia.

Garlic prawns with coconut rice and sweetcorn salsa, recipe in the link below. (Photo: Wyoming Paul)

Another use of fresh sweetcorn is this very delicious sweet and sour salsa, tossed with red onion, chilli, plenty of lemon juice, fresh coriander, and diced avocado. I paired mine with garlic butter prawns and coconut rice, which was summery heaven on a plate, to be honest.

Wyoming Paul is the co-founder of Grossr, a meal kit alternative.

Read all the previous Ingredients of the Week here.

Keep going!