The thought popped into my head unprompted and unbidden: The sudden, terrible realization that it’s almost September. And I haven’t made a single batch of creamed corn.
I don’t know how it slipped my mind. What with all the rain and heat, it’s been a pretty good summer for corn. Not like some summers I could name, when we got only heat and no rain, resulting in corn fields so parched, they rattle dryly in the wind. Or years when we got all rain and not much heat, sending corn straight to fungus and poor germination.
No, this summer has been chock-a-block with corn. I’ve just been busy, and traveling, and rushing through farmers’ markets too quickly to think it through.
Some people define the Southern summer food list by fried chicken or tomato sandwiches. All worthy contenders. But for me, the dish that comes to mind first is a cast-iron skillet full of creamed corn. My mother and my aunts all made it. My grandmother made it in the depths of the Depression, sometimes resorting to water instead of milk when she was trying to feed five kids on more hope than grocery money. Even my mother-in-law, not an enthusiastic cook, gifted me with two corn strippers from her own collection, lethal gadgets designed to slice off the tops of kernels and scrape the milk from a cob with a single pass.
In her new book on Appalachian cooking, “Victuals,” author Ronni Lundy calls it Skillet Corn, also a popular name, to differentiate it from that nasty, gloppy canned cream corn. Others call it fried corn, although that’s misleading – it’s not fried, it’s slowly sauteed.
In my family, it was creamed corn and so it shall remain for me. And you’ve only had canned creamed corn, let me repeat: Not the same thing. At all.
There are a few of things to know about a good batch of creamed corn:
1. You need corn. The fresher the better. Personally, I prefer white corn. Yellow and white is nice, but it can be a little too sweet, veering toward the taste of the gloppy canned version. I like it creamy but savory, with a good hint of black pepper.
2. You need to get the corn off the cob. Unlike cutting kernels off cooked cobs for a salad, you don’t want to cut too deep. While there are lots of suggestions out there to use a tube cake pan to hold the cob while you cut straight down, I find that a little unsteady and really no neater. My preference: Place the cob on a cutting board on its side. Cut straight down one side, then turn it and rest it on the flat side while you continue slicing and turning.
3. You need the corn juice: The reason to focus on the tops of the kernels is so you free up lots of “corn milk” at the base of the kernels. Use the flat side of a knife to scrape down the sides, getting all the white corn juice. It will splatter. This is why farm wives had all those aprons.
4. You need a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Oh, it would work in a shiny skillet. But it wouldn’t be the same.
On Saturday night, I made a big batch of it. I could add the leftovers to cooked butterbeans to make succotash. Or I could refrigerate it and mix it with panko bread crumbs later to make passable corn fritters. Or I could just reheat it and keep eating it exactly like it is. Which is pretty much perfect.
Real Creamed Corn
4 to 6 ears fresh corn
2 to 3 tablespoons butter
1/2 to 1 cup half-and-half (cream is a little too thick, milk is a little too thin)
About 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
About 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste
Shuck the corn and remove any silks. Using a very sharp knife, place each cob flat on a cutting board and cut down one side to remove the kernels. Keep turning the cob to cut away the kernels from all sides. Place the kernels in a wide mixing bowl, then stand the cob on its end (in the bowl or on the cutting board) and run the flat side of the knife down the cob to remove all the white juice and mix it with the kernels. Continue with the remaining ears.
Place a large skillet over medium-high heat and melt the butter. Add the kernels and corn juice to the skillet along with the 1/2 cup half-and-half. Adjusting heat to keep it from sticking (corn has a lot of sugar, so you have to watch it), cook slowly about 30 minutes, stirring regularly and adding a little more half-and-half as needed as it starts to thicken. Season to taste with salt and pepper and continue cooking, stirring, until it’s thick enough that when you draw a wooden spoon through it, it leaves a little path. You want it thick and creamy, not too soupy.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.