On those hot summer nights in my hometown of Columbus, Nebraska, we’d pull into a strip mall parking lot off Highway 30 where the Daniels family sold their daily harvest out of the back of a truck; everyone in town knew that theirs was the sweetest sweet corn around. We’d take home a dozen ears—two per person for our family of five, plus a couple extra for good measure. Sitting on our screened-in porch overlooking the lake, my sister and I would shuck the ears over a paper grocery bag, dropping in the husks, and then picking out every last string of silk threaded between the golden kernels. My mom would boil the corn in a big pot of salted water. When it was done, we’d stick yellow plastic holders in the ends of each cob, and take turns spinning the steaming corn over a stick of butter, coating them in a thick sheen.
As I got older and interested in cooking, I started exploring the versatility of my favorite grain (or is it a vegetable?)—corn chowder with bacon and chives, spicy corn salsa, griddled corncakes topped with crème fraîche and smoked salmon. I’ve found that even raw corn can be a delicious addition to a salad of tomatoes and peaches when it’s truly fresh, before the sugars convert to starch. But my hands-down favorite way of cooking it is on the grill, to caramelize those sugars and get a deeper, sweeter corn flavor. That, plus I prefer to cook outside over a fire throughout the months when it is in season.
Though I’d cooked corn in seemingly every which way, it took a trip to Mexico earlier this year, where maíz is truly king, to fully understand the breadth of its utility. With a group of food-industry friends, I consumed almost nothing but corn-based meals for days. We were in Oaxaca for an immersion in la comida.
On a small, hilltop farm outside of Teotitlán del Valle, Doña Aurora taught us to make masa from dried heirloom maize by first softening the hard kernels in limewater using the pre-Columbian nixtamalization process, then grinding it to a thick paste on a metate. We turned the masa into tortillas, tostadas, and memelas, all cooked on a clay comal over a wood fire.
The next day, at a market stall in Ocotlán, our breakfast was prepared by a woman who goes by the nickname Frida and styles herself nearly identical to the 20th century Mexican artist of the same name. She cooked a veritable breakfast feast that began with hot chocolate, atole, and fresh pressed green juices, and continued with crisp fried flautas, handmade tortillas, and a tasting of the region’s celebrated moles. Between passing plates of enchiladas and estofado came a surprise: Frida had wrapped a local semi-soft goat cheese in fresh corn husks—those things I’d been throwing out by the bagful my whole life—and placed it over a charcoal grill. Unwrapped, the cheese was soft and charred at the edges with a faint smoky flavor. I was taken aback by its utter simplicity and ingeniousness, and by the incredible taste.
Back home, I used Frida’s technique with the French-style chèvre that’s easy to find at any supermarket. The log-shaped goat cheese perfectly replaces the corn cob in the husk. (Here are the step-by-step instructions on how to wrap the corn husks around the goat cheese.) I also grilled the corn to make a relish for topping, with just a touch of heat, lime juice, and plenty of fresh herbs. With the smoky essence of the husk infused into the hot molten cheese, a generous drizzle of honey melting in, and that charred sweet corn relish, all spooned onto a hunk of crusty bread, plus a bottle of pink bubbly (high in acid to stand up to the tartness of the dish), a patio, and a pile of friends, it’s the perfect pre-dinner snack on a summer evening. This Nebraska girl couldn’t be more pleased.