There is an old saying that the two things you should never discuss in general are politics and religion.
To this list, I would like to add another: 1980s pop music.
Let me warn you. If you’re not a fan of 80s pop, the next few lines in this column may be confusing. In other words, if the phrase “Knee deep in the hoopla” doesn’t ring a bell, you might just want to save some time and get to the recipes now.
As a proud member of Generation X, the 80s were my decade. From 1980 to 1989, I went from junior high (i.e. “Gen X-speak for “college”) to high school and then to college. I also had a perm, wore bright shirts (a la “Miami Vice”) and danced with Madonna and Duran Duran.
This means that I also have very strong opinions about 80s music, and thanks to Facebook, I can spread those opinions to an unsuspecting audience. Take a post I made last week. It was simple and straightforward: “What’s the worst pop song of the 1980s, and why is it ‘We Built This City’ by Starship.”
Let me give you some background. I have a love-hate relationship with this 1985 hit.
I bought the album. I memorized all the words. I threw it when it was on the radio.
Yet 37 years later, I am ashamed. The song is silly. It’s about rebellion, and yet the rhythms are incredibly conventional.
The music video – major media in the 1980s – is ridiculous and features a photo of Abraham Lincoln singing the chorus line “We built this town on rock and roll”. Poor Abe. First, John Wilkes Booth, and now this.
However, not everyone shares this opinion. A few seconds after pressing “Back” on the message, I received a reply. It was short and direct: “You are wrong.
Others quickly chimed in with their suggestions for songs worse than Starship’s melody. Chris DeBurgh got some hits for “Lady in Red.” (I agree. It’s awful), just like Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science” (Quirky and fun). Others ignored the question and said things like “I hate Duran Duran” (heresy).
All in all, it was a fun discussion, which is why I made the post in the first place. I learned a little about musical tastes from my friends, and they learned from me why those tastes are bad.
Which brings me to the point of this column. As controversial as ’80s music may be for Gen Xers, sweet corn may elicit similar reactions from Midwesterners. I understand most of you believe that sweet corn should be boiled and never grilled. It also shouldn’t be polluted with exotic flavors or ingredients like chili powder or parmesan cheese.
I’m not here to tell you that you’re wrong, but… well…
In all honesty, I’m like most of you. I like my sweet corn simple. After all, as far as food goes, it’s pretty much perfect as is.
Plus, the sweet corn season is short, so most of you see no reason to waste those precious cobs experimenting with. I can’t argue with you there.
Nonetheless, if you’re feeling adventurous, I have a few suggestions. Try them if you want, or just ignore me. Butter and salt are all you need for really good corn on the cob.
But believe me on “We Built This City”. Any song that contains the word “hoopla” can’t be good.
Prepare your corn
To boil or not to boil…
Like I said, the most common way to prepare sweet corn is to cook it quickly in a pot of salted boiling water. If you’re a traditionalist, I won’t stand in your way. First, fill a kettle with enough water to completely cover the corn while cooking. Bring the water to a full boil then add the salt. You will need about 1 teaspoon of salt for every liter of water. Once the water is boiling, carefully pour in the corn, being careful not to splash. Bake the ears for 5-6 minutes. Serve immediately with butter and salt.
But boiling isn’t the only way to go. Corn can also be cooked well on the grill. The dry heat of the grill adds a nuance of flavor that boiling water lacks. Plus, there’s the added benefit that you don’t have to heat up your kitchen in the middle of summer.
But should corn be cooked with or without the husk? Those who prefer to grill corn that has been shelled argue that it allows the sugar in the naked kernels to caramelize and capture more of the smoky flavor from the grill. That may be true, but at home we have found that grilling the cobs with the husk on steams the corn well and produces wonderfully tender kernels that are more to our liking.
But you should decide for yourself. Whichever method you choose, start by bringing the grill to high heat. While the grill is preheating, soak the corn in water for at least 10 minutes before cooking. If you want to grill shelled corn, remove the husks and silks and place the cobs directly on the grill. The corn will char a little while cooking. Turn the ears every few minutes and cook for about 8 minutes until cooked through (use your best judgment).
Cooking corn with the husk is about the same. Roll the husk down as if you were peeling a banana, but be sure to leave the husk attached to the cob at the base. Remove the silk, then rewrap the wrap around the ear. Some recommend tying the envelope in place with twine, but I don’t think that’s necessary. Place the corn on the grill and close the lid. Turn the corn every few minutes to ensure even cooking. Cooking should take about 12-15 minutes.
Now is the time to step through the looking glass. An easy way to add a little kick to your sweet corn is to add some flavor to your butter. We love garlic at home and are looking for the opportunity to add it to everything. It’s a great complement to corn and butter here, and this variation shouldn’t prove too drastic for you traditionalists.
- 6 tablespoons butter, softened but not melted
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 4 ears of corn (you decide if you want to cook it with or without shell)
- Salt and pepper to taste
Mix the minced garlic with the softened butter. Cook corn as desired and spread with garlic butter. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Again, the main ingredient here is butter, but with a twist. This recipe, from the August 2003 issue of “Bon Appetit,” is so simple you can whip it up in about five minutes (minus the time it takes to cook the corn, of course). Don’t let the thought of chili powder in butter scare you. It’s actually a nice subtle corn accent that I think most people (even the finicky ones) will love.
- ¾ cup softened butter at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons chilli powder
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 8 ears of corn still in the shell
- Salt to taste
Combine butter, chili powder, salt, cumin and pepper in a small bowl. Put aside.
Grill the corn as directed above (use the shell or shell method, it’s your choice). Brush the corn with the chili butter and season with salt to taste.
Grilled Corn on the Cob with Maple Chipotle Glaze
OK, now that we’ve taken a small step, I think we’re ready for something a little riskier, like this recipe from the August 2002 issue of “Bon Appétit”.
I’ve never been a big fan of maple, so I was skeptical when I went to make this corn glaze. What I have found is that the syrup tastes really sweet rather than “maple-like”. Plus, the chipotle peppers provide just a hint of spiciness. Best of all, neither overpowers the corn, which remains the star of this dish.
- ½ cup maple syrup
- ¼ cup butter
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 4 teaspoons chopped canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
- ¼ tsp salt
- 6 cobs of corn, shelled and silk removed (if you want to toast the corn with the husk, just skip the step of pre-glazing the cobs before cooking. Instead, just add the glaze to the cooked corn)
Bring the first five ingredients to a boil in a small, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer until glaze is reduced to ¾ cup, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes.
Bring your barbecue to medium heat. Brush the corn with a little frosting. Grill until lightly charred in spots, turning frequently (about 8 minutes). Transfer the corn to a plate and brush with the remaining glaze. Sprinkle with salt if desired and serve.
Windy City Mexican Grilled Corn
OK, time to bring out the big guns. I admit that at first glance, this recipe from Steve Raichlen’s “Barbecue Bible” doesn’t sound very good. Who would put mayonnaise on corn, let alone cheese and lemon juice?
You’ll have to trust me (like I trusted Raichlen) that this stuff is awesome. Not really. The combination of mayonnaise, cheese, chili powder and lime juice creates a real layered effect. Each taste creates an amazing harmony that really cannot be described. It’s a little sour. It’s a bit hot (with the chili powder). And it’s a bit corny.
Seriously, try it. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
- 8 cobs of corn still in the husk, but with the silk removed
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 1 cup (about 4 ounces) grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
- 3 tablespoons chili powder (preferably Ancho chili powder, but regular chili powder will also work)
- Lime wedges
Shell the corn by removing the husk, but leaving it attached to the end of the stalk. Remove the silk, then re-roll the corn with the husk. Soak the ears in a pan of water until ready to grill.
Place mayonnaise, cheese, chili powder and lime wedges in separate bowls. Set aside until you are ready to eat.
Heat the grill to high heat. Place the corn on the grill and close the lid. Grill until nicely browned on all sides (2-3 minutes per side or 12-15 minutes total). Turn regularly to ensure even cooking.
Transfer the grilled corn to a platter and serve. First spread the corn with mayonnaise (as if you were spreading it with butter), then sprinkle with cheese and chili powder. Finish by squeezing with lime juice. You might also want a pinch of salt, but that’s up to you.