Growing up on the farm in Iowa, there was one day each summer that my sisters and I dreaded, but never managed to avoid. It always arrived in late July or early August, a hot sunny clear day when my mom would suddenly announce “Don’t make any plans for tomorrow, we are cutting sweet corn.”
It wasn’t horror filling or something to keep you up at night, but more of a groaned ‘Oh crap!’ because you knew from past experience what a hot, itchy, exhausting, mind numbing task lay ahead. You see, when my dad planted sweet corn, it wasn’t with the use of a hoe, he used the corn planter and planted a quarter of an acre. And when we picked sweet corn, we picked it all. Some went to the neighbors, most went to freeze.
For a frame of reference, an acre is about the size of an American football field. For further reference, an average number of sweet corn seeds planted into an acre of good Iowa cropland would range around 16,000 seeds. Broken down to a quarter acre, that gives you around 4,000 corn stalks in our quarter of an acre, which translates to 4000 ears of corn. Needless to say, that’s a lot of corn for 5 people to deal with in a day, let alone eat.
We always started early to avoid being out in tall corn during the heat of the day. Dad would drive the tractor with the front end loader through the sweet corn patch, as my sisters and I walked in front picking corn and throwing it into the bucket.
I remember filling that loader 3 times each summer, though my memory may exaggerate. When the it was full, Dad and I would shuck the corn, throwing the husks to the pigs while my sisters went in to help Mom get ready for the onslaught.
For the rest of the day we boiled, cut and froze sweet corn, 150 quarts if I remember correctly, enough for a whole year and then some.
Yesterday, I went to the farmer’s market near my home in San Francisco and bought a case of sweet corn, 30 ears. The weather was cold, in the 50’s, miserable and overcast - standard August weather here. I took it home, shucked it, blanched it, cut it and bagged it for the freezer. I was done in 2 hours with 15 small bags of corn and 3 quarts of sweet corn stock to show for my work. It seemed like a pittance.
For dinner, I made sweet corn soup and grilled cheese. My son, Antonio, was impressed with the soup, somewhat less so with my story about cutting and freezing corn with my family.
Those hot, itchy, boring, exhausting days call to me. I'll never again work with my family in that special way, I know that with an ache in my heart.
Next year, I’ll plant my own sweet corn patch on the farm. I’ll send the boys plane tickets to visit in late July. They’ll never know what hit them.
Sweet Corn Soup
This recipe for the soup is one I made while working at One Market Restaurant here in SF. It is simple and rich and takes additions easily to make a whole new soup.
1 quart sweet corn cob stock (made by boiling the cobs after cutting off the kernels)
2 Cups of fresh sweet corn kernels
1 Pint heavy whipping cream
Salt and pepper
Make your sweet corn stock by bringing the cobs to a boil, then turn down and simmer for 20 minutes.
While the stock is simmering, put the cream in a saucepan and reduce by half (make sure it doesn’t boil over - Beth hates when I do that, so I don’t recommend it).
Strain the stock and add half the sweet corn kernels to the stock and puree with an immersion blender (or in a regular blender).
At this point, the puree can be strained again or left as is for a thicker consistency.
Add the reduced cream and season with salt and pepper.
Simmer cubed potatoes until tender in the sweet corn stock and add bacon or smoked ham or turkey for a chowder
Add the same potatoes and a dollop of picked blue crab for crab and corn chowder
A sprinkle with parmesan cheese, chilli powder and finish with a spoonful of sour cream in the center of each bowl
Sprinkle the top with chunks of avocado, tomato, green onion and/or cilantro.
Anything else you’d like to try!