By Gretchen McKay

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Corn has been the Shenot family’s star crop for more than 150 years

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Categories : Food , Positively Pittsburgh

These days, when it’s tougher than ever to make a living off the land, Shenot Farm and Market is flourishing.

The Shenots have growing fruits and vegetables on the same 100-plus hilly acres in Marshall for more than 150 years, ever since Christopher Scheno and his wife, Margreta, emigrated from Alsace-Lorraine in France with their five children and bought the property off Wexford Run Road.

Initially every harvest was for their own consumption. But with every generation, operations were expanded to sell fresh and quality produce. Fourth-generation John Wilson Shenot, known as Bill, took over the reins in the 1950s and made Shenot’s an institution. Along with hauling his crop to farmers markets, he opened a roadside stand in the 1960s that eventually evolved into a full-fledged farm market while carving out a niche for what would become its star product — sweet corn.

On a typical summer day, Shenot Farm sells anywhere from 200 to 500 dozen ears of corn. All are harvested by hand early in the morning, when sugar content is highest. Bill’s 41-year-old grandson, Rob Shenot, does most of the picking, with a small crew of teenage workers catching the corn in a mesh bag as he tosses it forward.

The trend today is toward “supersweets” like ‘Krispy King’ that boast up to twice the amount of sugar as traditional varieties like ‘Silver Queen.’ Shenot’s favors sugar-enhanced varieties like ‘Allure’ and ‘Primus’ that while also sweet, are tender and loaded with “corny” flavor. 

“We like the way it pops right off the cob,” the younger Shenot says. “We want the eating experience to be as great as the flavor.”

Consumers no longer desire the yellow ‘Golden Bantam’ his grandfather built his reputation on, thinking (incorrectly) that white or bi-color corn is sweeter. In truth, it’s the genetic variety that determines flavor and texture, Mr. Shenot says. Customers also want corn that doesn’t have to be thrown into a pot of boiling water within hours of being picked before the sugar converts to starch in the kernels. Today’s sweeter corns have a longer shelf life, lasting a couple of days in the fridge.

What really determines taste is when the corn is harvested. Pick too early and the kernels won’t achieve maximum sweetness. Pick too late and the corn will be tough and starchy.

“Timing is everything. Even one day can make a difference,” he says.

On a recent morning, he shows how it’s done. Standing between two rows of 6-foot-tall ‘Providence’ corn, he first examines the silks to see if they’ve turned from light gold to dark brown. After that, it’s all by feel. A ready ear is one that’s not too fat or too small, with kernels that reach all the way to the tip. Each variety is a little different, he notes as he gives it a squeeze. When the husk starts to loosen up, it’s another sign of maturity.

The row is ready. Nate Bateman, a 14-year-old Pine-Richland freshman is tasked with bagging the corn. 

Grasping an ear firmly in each hand, Mr. Shenot pulls it down, twists and pulls it off the stalk. He repeats the process immediately with the next two stalks. He then tosses the four ears forward, where Nate catches it in a mesh bag as he inches backward down the 3-foot-wide aisle. Once they hit four dozen, Nate tosses the bag into the truck lane so that it can be picked up and transferred to the farm’s cooler. 

The picking motion is quick and not without peril. The bees who hang out on the silks get stuck if there’s heavy dew. A picker also has to watch out for horse nettle. Both sting.

This season got off to a bit of a rocky start because of the chilly, wet spring and a late frost in May that wrecked havoc on their apple and peach trees. Planting eventually started in late March and early April. “We couldn’t get it in fast enough,” Mr. Shenot says. 

Every four or five days saw a new planting, and the first ears came off the stalk about a week after July 4. They were still planting through mid-July to make sure there’s corn through early October.

An eight-foot deer fence keeps hungry deer at bay, and Mr. Shenot is always on the lookout for the earworms that like to eat their way down the silks to the kernels.

We might hate the recent hot, sticky and humid weather, he adds, but corn loves it.

Here’s another fun fact: There’s a piece of silk for every kernel on the cob, and it’s hollow to provide a roadway for pollen to travel to the kernel’s ovary and fertilize it to form the seed.

Most of Shenot Farm’s sweet corn is sold in its retail market, with some ears occasionally going to other farm markets to help fill voids. This year, it’s $8 a dozen. Mr. Shenot, who already is schooling his 4-year-old daughter, Pepper, on the art of corn growing, suggests steaming it only until it’s hot enough to melt butter for the best flavor. 

A lot of prospective farmers struggle with the transition between one generation and the next, says Mr. Shenot, who inherited his passion for farming from his father, Ed. Land transfers are as complicated as family dynamics. The work itself is hard,and never-ending. Droughts, late frosts, hungry insects  — it all takes a toll on the pocketbook.  “And new generations often have new ideas” that make change difficult, he notes. 

Mr. Shenot has wanted to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps long before he decided to study horticulture like his dad at Penn State. He graduated in 2001.

In a way he’s an anomaly. There are fewer younger farmers these days. According to the latest Census of Agriculture, the average age of the American farmer now is 57.5 years, up 1.2 years from 2012. 

Some of that is undoubtedly attributed to the fact that farmers, even if they can afford it, are loathe to retire. Ed and his wife, Mary Lou, still work long hours on the farm. He continues to plant most of the corn 1 acre at a time, and she churns out many varieties of creamy, homemade fudge that are impossible to resist on a visit to the store.

Spouses, too, help in keeping the ag operations running efficiently. Mr. Shenot’s wife, Leah, oversees the farm’s website and social media accounts. Before the virus crisis, she ran the farm-to-table dinners they held on site. Along with seasonal and a handful of full-time workers who help harvest and man the store, the Shenots have one full-time employee in the field, field manager Duane Grimm.

Farming is “the definition of insanity,” says Mr. Shenot, laughing. It’s sometimes hard and can test your patience, but it has its rewards.

“At the end of the day, when you see someone buying or eating your corn, it’s so satisfying,” he says.

Chicken Elote Tacos

PG tested

Elote, the creamy, savory and popular corn salad, is often served on the cob. It’s also terrific in a less-sloppy preparation — as a topping for tacos. I heaped it on to shredded chicken, but you also could pair it with black beans or roasted poblano peppers or simply use it alone.

4 ears of sweet corn, charred on a grill or fry pan

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Salt and freshly ground pepper, divided

¼ cup mayonnaise

¼ cup sour cream

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

½ teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 cups shredded chicken (from rotisserie chicken)

1 teaspoon each chili powder, ground cumin and oregano

Juice from ½ orange (about ¼ cup)

8 corn tortillas, warmed

Handful or two of arugula for serving

½ cup grated Cotija cheese

Lime wedges

Sriracha, for garnish

Shave the corn off the cob carefully with a knife. Saute the kernels in a pan with butter, salt and pepper until tender, about 2 minutes.

Make crema: Put mayonnaise, sour cream, cayenne, sugar, ½ teaspoon of salt and cilantro in a mixing bowl and mix until smooth. Mix hot corn with the mayo-sour cream mixture, making sure all the kernels are covered with it.

Place oil in a small saucepan. When it sizzles, add shredded chicken, chili powder, cumin, oregano and orange juice. Toss to combine. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring often until heated through.

Compose tacos: Place some arugula and ¼ cup shredded chicken in each of 8 corn tortillas. Spoon corn kernels on top.

Top with grated Cotija cheese. Squeeze a little lime juice on top and drizzle with Sriracha.

Makes 8 tacos

— Gretchen McKay

Summer Corn With Bacon & Beans

PG tested

Corn fried with bacon and beans is an easy summer side dish. It pairs well with grilled meats and hamburgers but also can be dished up as a vegetarian entree.

2 to 3 strips of bacon, cubed

1 clove of garlic, minced

6 ears of sweet corn, husked and cut off cob

1 medium red onion, sliced or diced

½ cup fresh green beans, snapped in thirds

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

In a large skillet, add bacon over medium heat, and cook until crisp.

Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add corn, red onion and green beans. Cover and cook until tender, about 3 to 5 minutes. Do not overcook. Vegetables should be tender and slightly crisp.

Add salt and pepper to taste and apple cider vinegar. Cook for another minute. Serve with your favorite summer meal or on its own.

Serves 4 to 6.

— Leah Shenot @farmerswifeandspoon

Creole Shrimp on Creamed Corn

PG tested

In New Orleans, corn is often paired with bell peppers and tomatoes to create the colorful and classic Cajun dish, maque choux. Here, the sweet kernels are cooked with milk and cream and then topped with a spicy shrimp and tomato mixture. It’s light and bright but still full of flavor.

7 ears fresh shucked corn

1 cup milk

½ cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons butter, divided

¾ teaspoon kosher salt, divided

1 pound raw large shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 teaspoon Creole seasoning

¾ teaspoon smoked paprika

½ teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup halved cherry tomatoes

1 light fresh thyme leaves

5 garlic cloves, minced

½ cup sliced green onions

¼ cup dry white wine or chicken stock

Cut kernels from corn to equal 3½ cups; reserve cobs.

Set aside ½ cup kernels. Pulse remaining 3 cups kernels in a food processor until almost creamy, 5 or 6 times. Using dull side of a knife, scrape milk and pulp from cobs into a medium saucepan; discard cobs.

Add processed kernels, milk, cream and cornstarch to a pan. Bring to a simmer over medium, stirring often. Reduce heat to low; simmer, stirring occasionally until thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir in 1½ tablespoons butter and ¼ teaspoon salt. Remove from heat; cover and keep warm.

In a large bowl, combine shrimp, Creole seasoning, paprika and pepper.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high. Add oil and remaining ½ tablespoon of butter to skillet; cook until butter melts.

Add shrimp; cook, without stirring, 1 minute. Add tomatoes, thyme, garlic and remaining ½ teaspoon salt; cook, stirring occasionally, 3 minutes.

Add green onions and reserved ½ cup corn; cook, stirring occasionally, until shrimp are done, 1 to 2 minutes. Add wine or stock; cook, stirring and scraping pan to loosen browned bits, 30 seconds. Serve shrimp mixture over creamed corn.

Serves 6.

— Adapted from cookinglight.com