Summer in Illinois means lots and lots of sweet corn.
While the state’s biggest agricultural crop is feed corn — or the kind of corn used for feeding animals — local farmer’s markets and produce stores are also filled with sweet corn this time of year. And in August it’s so abundant that it becomes incredibly affordable, sometimes as low as $.10/ear.
Where I live on the southwest side of Chicago, corn is an important part of the local economy. Just a few miles from my house is the Argo Corn Starch factory, where nearly all the nation’s corn starch is manufactured. When the wind blows from the northwest, it is often possible to smell the aroma of corn starch being made.
The factory sits on the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which is a key transportation link between Lake Michigan and the Illinois River, which connects to the Mississippi River and from there to the rest of the world. While corn travels on huge barges from the central Illinois farmlands upriver to the corn starch plant, it also travels downriver to Peoria, where it is used to make sour mash whiskey at the giant Hiram Walker plant.
Illinois corn is even used to make Flex Fuel to power cars, truck and trains. And just across the border in Indiana, a specialized type of corn is used to make popcorn for the Orville Redenbacher brand, among others.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about an amazing type of corn that is so soft and sweet that it doesn’t even really need to be cooked. Today, I want to talk about how to use regular old, bi-color sweet corn. It’s incredibly versatile and can be used for all kinds of dishes.
One of my favorite things to do with sweet corn is to roast it. I start by shucking it, then par-boil it for a few minutes so that it is about 3/4 cooked. Meanwhile, I fire up my grill.
When the grill is nice and hot, I simply place the ears of corn on the hottest part of the grill for a few minutes, turning them frequently so it gets a nice, even char. Then I remove the ears from the heat and let them rest.
At this point, the ears of corn can either be served right away with some soft butter, salt and pepper for a delicious side, or stored in the refrigerator for a day or two until you decide what you want to do with them. There’s frequently charred corn in my refrigerator in late summer.
One of my favorite things to make with roasted corn is this salsa. It’s so sweet and fresh that it can be served by itself as an low-calorie appetizer, with some tortilla chips on the side. It also has the versatility to be the perfect accompaniment to a main dish, such as this double-cut grilled pork chop, which I served atop a bed of fluffy mashed sweet potatoes.
Roasted Corn and Black Bean Salsa
2 or 3 ears of Sweet Corn
1 can Black Beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 Red Onion, small dice
2 Jalapenos, ribs and seeds removed, small dice
2 Tomatoes, medium dice
2 Green Onions, root end removed, sliced thin
Juice of 1 lime
2 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 tsp Cumin
1/2 tsp Chili Powder
Fresh Cracked Black Pepper
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Shuck corn and place in water, boiling for about 5 minutes. Remove and drain. This step can be done a day or two ahead of time.
2. Preheat grill. Place corn directly over the hottest part of the grill and cook until evenly charred, turning frequently, about a minute or two. Remove from heat and let cool.
3. When corn is cool enough to handle, use a chef’s knife to remove kernels from the cob. Combine charred corn kernels in a mixing bowl with remaining ingredients and toss well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes so the flavors can meld together. Serve salsa by itself with tortilla chips, or as a side dish to a main course.
If you like, you also can cut up some avocado and add it to this salsa for a kind of salsa/guacamole spin.
This time of year, corn is the most affordable and also the most flavorful, at least in Illinois.