No matter how fashionable it may be to disparage corn as the bane of the American diet, I look forward all year to sweet corn season. That’s sweet as in the addictive flavor of fresh corn on the cob, not as in the high fructose corn syrup that lurks in the background of so many processed foods.
A freshly picked ear right out of the pot of boiling water or straight off the grill invariably takes me back to the summers of my childhood, when corn on the cob was the star of every cookout. I love biting off the plump kernels and crunching them between my teeth to release a flood of sweet, milky juice. It’s messy, primal eating and it still makes me happy.
When the corn is only hours off the stalk, it really needs nothing more than a little salt and pepper to shine. Even melted butter, as satisfying as it always is, could be considered gilding.
Corn from the supermarket, though, tends to be a little older, a little tougher and often more starchy than sweet. It usually needs a little help. That’s when butter is essential.
Lately, I’ve been grilling corn in the style of Mexican street vendors. It’s perfect for those ears that are not quite as tender as you would like. The lime juice, garlic, chile powder, and grated cheese give the flavor of corn on the cob a real boost.
Don’t be put off by the fact that the recipe substitutes a thin coat of mayonnaise for butter. The mayo helps all the other ingredients stick and the combination tastes terrific.
To get the freshest available corn, choose ears that are well filled out, with fat, juicy kernels. Avoid any with dry or wrinkled kernels. The silk between husk and ear also should be soft and moist.
Mexican cheese is readily available in supermarkets where I live in Northern California, but you can substitute a mild feta if you can’t find cotija where you live. Some people like to use Parmesan. The cheese should be dry, crumbly and fairly salty.
If your corn is a bit tough, soak the ears, still in their husks, in cold water for an hour or more, then grill them – husk and all – for 10 or 15 minutes. Let cool until they’re comfortable to handle and then proceed with the recipe. The steaming makes them more tender.
4 ears of corn in the husk
Extra virgin olive oil
½ cup good quality mayonnaise
Juice of 1 lime
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup grated cotija or mild feta cheese
Ancho chile powder or other pure ground chile
Salt and pepper to taste
Peel back the husks from the corn, careful to leave the soft inner leaves attached to the ears. The husks will serve as a handle for the grilled corn and you may wish to tie them with kitchen twine, but it isn’t necessary. Strip off all the silk from the corn. Brush ears with olive oil and set aside while the grill heats.
In the meantime, stir together the mayonnaise, lime juice and garlic, adding a little water if necessary to thin to the consistency of heavy cream.
Grill corn over medium high heat, placing the ears on the grill so the husks extend over the edge and away from the fire. Cook, turning often, for 10-15 minutes, until corn is nicely browned with a few charred places.
Remove corn from grill. With a pastry brush, paint a thin layer of the seasoned mayonnaise over each ear. Season with salt and pepper, sprinkle with cheese, dust with chile powder and serve.