I grew up in Iowa where we harbored rather provincial ideas about sweet corn. As far as we were concerned, there was just one way to do it: fill a speckled enamel pot with water and a spoonful of sugar, put the pot over a quick flame, then trot out to the garden to pick and husk the corn. We’d boil the ears for three minutes, then remove them to a platter with tongs.
At the table, we’d jab the ends of the ears with twin-pronged corn holders, impale a cube of cold butter on the end of a fork, and run it over the steaming, tightly packed kernels. A sprinkle of table salt and black pepper, and you were good to go. That was how everyone I knew prepared sweet corn.
And then I met global grilling authority Steven Raichlen. (Long story short—I have been his assistant for over a decade.) His bible-thick BBQ USA (Workman Publishing, 2002) lured me out of my corn comfort zone. In fact, I haven’t boiled an ear of corn in years. I always grill it, husk off, to take advantage of the sweet smoky flavor live fire cooking brings out. (For more information, see The Great Grilled Corn Debate.) It turns out that’s the way most of the world does grilled corn, from Cambodia to Kenya.
My personal conversion started with the recipe on page 605, Windy City Mexican Grilled Corn, also known as elote. You peel the husks back as if peeling a banana, leaving them attached at the stem end, then gather them in a tight bundle tied off with butcher’s string or a pliant strip of corn husk to make a handle. Remove the corn silk. Grill over a hot fire, turning as needed until some of the kernels are brown. (The color will be patchy.) To serve, spread mayonnaise on each ear, then sprinkle with finely grated Cotija or Parmesan cheese. Dust with pure chile powder, then serve with lime wedges.
Are you ready for your sweet corn epiphany? Just in time for the 4th of July, here are 10 globally inspired ideas for taking this year’s crop over the top.
Cambodia: Combine 1 cup of unsweetened coconut milk (shake the can before opening) with 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, 2 bay leaves, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally until the sugar and salt dissolve. Grill 4 ears of husked sweet corn over a hot fire and baste several times with the coconut milk mixture. (This corn was a huge hit at Barbecue University this year.)
Italy: Lightly brush 4 ears of husked sweet corn with extra virgin olive oil and season with garlic salt and pepper. Grill over a hot fire. Sprinkle with finely grated Parmesan and finely chopped fresh basil before serving. Drizzle with additional olive oil if desired.
Kenya: This popular street snack can easily be made at home. Shuck 4 ears of corn, carefully pulling the husks down over the stems. Remove the silk. Carefully snap off the ears of corn and rearrange the husks into their natural shapes. Using scissors or your hands, remove about a third of the leaves from the top, leaving a shape like a canoe. Reserve. Slice 1 or 2 green or red chile peppers into rounds. Using a mortar and pestle, pound the chiles with 1/4 cup of coarse salt. Add the juice of 1/2 lime. Divide this mixture between the corn husk boats. Grill the corn over a fairly hot fire. To serve, place the corn in the prepared boats and offer lime wedges for squeezing.
Japan: Combine 1/2 cup of Kewpie brand Japanese mayonnaise (a rich mayonnaise made with rice vinegar and available at Asian markets or through Amazon.com) with 1 tablespoon soy sauce and 1 teaspoon of fresh lime or lemon juice. Set aside. Brush 4 ears of husked sweet corn lightly with toasted sesame oil. Grill over a hot fire. Spread each ear of corn with the mayonnaise, then sprinkle to taste with shichimi togarashi, a blend of Japanese peppers, sesame seeds, seaweed, and spices.
USA: Combine 1 stick of softened salted butter (8 tablespoons) with 1 tablespoon of pure maple syrup, 2 teaspoons bourbon, and 1 minced scallion. Spiral thin-cut bacon strips around 4 ears of husked sweet corn (1 strip per ear). Grill over a medium hot fire until the bacon has rendered most of its fat and the corn is nicely browned. Serve with the maple-bourbon butter.
Thailand: Combine 1 stick of softened salted butter (8 tablespoons) with 1 to 2 tablespoons of sriracha, 2 tablespoons of chopped fresh cilantro, 1 finely minced garlic clove, and 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice. Grill 4 ears of husked sweet corn over a hot fire. Serve with the sriracha butter.
Chile: In a blender jar or food processor, combine the flesh of 1 ripe avocado, 1/2 cup sour cream, 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, 1 tablespoon lime juice, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Pulse until smooth. Grill 4 ears of husked sweet corn over a hot fire. Serve the corn with the avocado crema and sprinkle with merquén (a powdered Chilean seasoning made from smoked goat’s horn peppers, salt, and spices) or chili powder.
India: Grill 4 ears of husked sweet corn over a hot fire. To serve, brush the corn with ghee (clarified butter) and sprinkle with salt and chili powder. Drizzle with fresh lemon juice.
Portugal/Mozambique: Combine 1 stick of softened salted butter (8 tablespoons) with 2 tablespoons piri piri sauce (or more to taste), 1 finely minced garlic clove, 2 tablespoons minced cilantro, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, and 1 teaspoon lemon zest. Grill 4 ears of husked sweet corn over a hot fire. To serve, brush the corn with the piri piri butter.
Spain: Lightly brush 4 ears of husked sweet corn with extra virgin olive oil and grill the corn over a hot fire. Remove from the grill and brush once more with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and smoked paprika (pimentón). Dust with finely grated Manchego cheese.
What’s your favorite way to grill corn? Post photos on the Barbecue Board.