Gretchen McKay

Jazz up corn on the cob

Mexican-style corn/Gretchen McKay

Lots of sweet butter and a sprinkle, or two, of salt. Maybe some freshly ground black pepper, if a shaker’s within easy reach on the picnic table. That’s how so many of us enjoy fresh-picked corn on the cob.

It’s hard to go wrong with tradition, but simple isn’t necessarily better when it comes to summer’s hallmark vegetable. It’s just … simpler.

Sweet and tender, corn on the cob lends itself to any number of toppings.

Mexican-style corn, topped with spicy sriracha- or chipotle-flavored mayonnaise and crumbly cotija cheese, is particularly hot right now, showing up in any number of this season’s grilling cookbooks and also making a welcome appearance in local Pittsburgh restaurants such as Tako, Downtown, and Big Burritos’ Max Mex.

But that’s just the start. It turns out corn can be made even tastier when you brush it with a tangy basil vinaigrette and dust it with salty Parmigiano-Reggiano, or slather it with a homemade herb butter. And how about wrapping it in thick slices of bacon before you throw it on the grill. While it’s cooking, brush it with a peppery chipotle-honey glaze. Talk about savory treats that will get kids and veggie-adverse grownups to eat their vegetables.

Local corn soon will be available in spades, so why not start thinking about some ways to jazz it up a bit with color, flavor and texture after you’ve tired of plain and simple cobs?

The traditional method of cooking corn on the cob, after it is husked and the silky threads pulled away from the kernels, is to boil it: Drop the corn into a large pot filled with boiling salted water, cover, let the water return to a boil, and then turn off the heat and keep the pot covered. After about five minutes, remove what you’ll eat during a first round; remaining corn can be kept warm in the water for another 10 minutes or so. But it also can be broiled (four to six inches from the heat, for 10 to 15 minutes), roasted in the oven (at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes), or cooked on the grill.

Grilling adds a hint of smoke and char to the vegetable. Throw the naked cobs over a hot fire and grill them, turning occasionally, until the kernels are tender and charred, about 10 minutes total. Or, wrap ears in aluminum foil, with or without butter or oil inside, and cook over a hot grate or directly on hot coals, until is done, about 15 to 20 minutes.

My favorite way to grill corn is the easiest way, in the husk. Soak the unshucked ears in water to cover for at least 15 to 20 minutes, remove corn from water and shake off excess. Place corn on the hot grill grates (heat should be medium-high), close cover and grill for 20 minutes, turning every five minutes or so until the corn is tender when pierced with the tip of a knife. Pull the husks back before serving (the silks will come right off). The husks will get black, but no worries! The corn inside will stay moist.

If you like, you can get fancy and pull the husks off during the last five minutes of cooking, remove the silks and grill the ears until they’re lightly browned all over.

When choosing corn, look for the freshest cobs possible — preferably corn that’s been picked that morning; the longer it’s off the stalk, the more the corn is past its prime. The debate over whether to go with tiny kernels or plump ones is endless. Ditto with whether to choose yellow, white or bi-color butter and sugar corn (no matter what your parents told you when you were a kid, there’s no correlation between the color of corn and its sweetness). What is important is that the kernels, when you gently peel back the top of the cob or feel them through the husk, are closely spaced and even.

Fresh corn will keep for a day or so in the refrigerator, unshucked in a bag. But really, who can wait that long for the quintessential taste of summer?

Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Basil-Parmesan Corn

Basil-Parmesan Corn/Gretchen McKay

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Fresh and zesty basil vinaigrette doesn’t just dress up tomatoes, grilled chicken and pasta salad — it also makes a great topping for grilled corn. 

For basil vinaigrette

1 small shallot, roughly chopped

2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves, stems removed (about 4 ounces)

1 clove garlic

1/2 teaspoons red pepper flakes

1/2 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

For corn

8 ears fresh corn

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Blend all the ingredients for the basil vinaigrette for 1 minute, until very smooth. Taste and adjust salt and pepper as needed. Serve immediately, or refrigerate the vinaigrette for up to 3 days.

Prepare corn: Preheat an indoor or outdoor grill to high heat. Pull the husk down and keep it on to use for holding the corn later. Grill the corn over high heat until it starts to char. Remove from grill.

Using a pastry brush, brush some of the basil vinaigrette onto the corn and then heavily sprinkle with the grated cheese. Serve immediately.

Makes 8 servings.

— Adapted from

Bacon-Wrapped Corn with Chipotle Glaze

Bacon-Wrapped Corn with Chipotle Glaze/Gretchen McKay

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If they can make bacon ice cream, why not bacon-wrapped corn on the cob? It’s delicious! Be sure to secure the bacon strips with toothpicks; I didn’t and it fell off the cob when I turned it. For an even easier preparation, wrap the cobs in aluminum foil.

4 corn ears, husked

4 bacon slices

1/4 cup canned chipotle peppers

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup butter, melted

Going from one end to the other, wrap bacon around each ear and secure with toothpicks. Set aside.

In a food processor or blender, pulse chipotle peppers until smooth. In a bowl, combine pureed peppers, honey and butter.

Spray grates of grill with cooking spray and set over medium-hot coals. Liberally brush bacon-wrapped corn with chipotle-honey glaze and arrange on grill. Grill corn, turning every 2 to 3 minutes and basting regularly with glaze, for about 20 to 25 minutes or until corn is cooked and bacon is crisp.

Serves 4.


Mexican-Style Grilled Street Corn

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This spicy corn dish is a typical street food in Mexico. You can adjust the level of spiciness by adding more, or less, sriracha. If you can’t find cotija cheese, substitute parmesan. 

8 ears corn, husked

For sriracha aioli

½ cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons sriracha, or more to taste

Juice ½ lime

Salt and cayenne pepper, to taste

For toppings

Crumbled cotija cheese

Red pepper flakes

Chopped scallions

Chopped fresh cilantro

Lime wedges, for squeezing

Prepare corn: Preheat an indoor or outdoor grill to high heat. Pull the husk down and keep it on to use for holding the corn later. Brush grill grate and coat with oil.

Make aiolil: Combine mayonnaise, sriracha, and lime juice in a bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and set aside.

Put corn on grate and cook, turning every 5 minutes or so, until it starts to char. Remove from grill.

Drizzle corn with sriracha aioli, then spinkle with crumbled cotija cheese, red pepper flakes, chopped scallions and and chopped cilantro. Serve with lime wedges.

Serves 8.

— Jack McKay, Gretchen McKay’s son

Grilled Corn With Herb Butter

Grilled Corn with Herbed Butter/Gretchen McKay

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Compound (flavored) butters are ridiculously easy to make at home, and add so much flavor to meats, vegetables and roasted fish. All you need is a fork, full-flavored ingredients such as fresh herbs and garlic, and some plastic wrap. Use the ingredients below as a jumping off point; you can also use rosemary, sage and thyme. 

8 ears corn

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter

1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/4 cup chopped fresh chervil

1/4 cup chopped fresh tarragon

1/4 cup chopped fresh chives

1 small clove garlic, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste (optional)

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Prepare butter: In bowl, using a fork, stir together butter, herbs, garlic, anchovy paste, salt and pepper. Transfer to a sheet of plastic wrap and using a rubber spatula and the plastic wrap, shape the butter into a log about 1½ inches in diameter. Wrap the log in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes, before using, or store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Prepare corn: Heat a charcoal or gas grill to medium-high. If you plan to grill the corn naked (out of the husk), peel back the husk and remove the silks. Keep the peeled-back husk on the cob, using it as a handle. Lube the corn with a little oil or butter. If you slip some foil under the husks during grilling, you will prevent them from burning.

If you prefer to grill the corn in the husk, simply toss the ears of corn over a medium-high fire — husk, silks and all.

Place corn on hot grill and cook. For unhusked corn, grill corn 20 minutes, turning every 5 minutes.

Serve corn with herbed butter.

Makes 8 servings.

— Adapted from “Williams-Sonoma Grill School” by Andrew Schloss and David Joachim (Weldon Owen, June 2016, $29.95)

A salute to the kernels and the cobs

Roasted Corn Relish/Gretchen McKay

Janoski’s Farm typically picks the first of its sweet corn the first week of July, just in time for Independence Day cookouts. So imagine customers’ delight when they discovered heaps of silk-topped ears in the Clinton farm market on June 16 — roughly three weeks ahead of schedule.

Doesn’t the farmers’ axiom have summer’s favorite veggie only knee-high this early?

“I know,” said Patty Janoski, with a chuckle, when I tracked her down between customers at the store on Route 30 to see what gives. “This is the earliest we’ve had it in the 50-year history of the farm.”

It’s so early, in fact, that many shoppers were just as surprised as the farmers.

At Kaelin Farms in Franklin Park, where the daily harvest began on June 23, or about 10 days ahead of schedule, sales were uncharacteristically sluggish the first three or four days corn was available.

“People didn’t know what to make of it,” said Curt Kaelin. “We didn’t sell that much.” (The price is $6.75 per dozen, 25 cents more than last year.)

The first tender ears also arrived earlier than expected at Schramm Farms in Jeannette, Westmoreland County, where white and butter-and-sugar varieties are selling for $6.50 a dozen. Staff there started picking on June 27.

Overall, it’s shaping up to be a pretty good year for local corn in Western Pennsylvania, thanks to a mild winter and the warmest March in Pittsburgh meteorological history (the average temperature was 51.5 degrees, and there was one four-day stretch where it reached into the 80s). Those ideal conditions means farmers were was able to sow the first of their butter-and-sugar (bi-color), yellow and white varieties even before St. Patrick’s Day, and see the first green shoots before Easter.

“Last year, we didn’t even plant until April 7,” said Mr. Kaelin.

As a result, consumers can expect abundant supplies of Pennsylvania sweet corn at farmers and roadside markets, and in local supermarkets, according to William Troxell of the Pennsylvania Vegetable Marketing and Research Program. (Giant Eagle expects to stock local corn by mid-July; look for signs indicating the farms it’s from.)

All this is good news for those among us who can’t imagine a summer that doesn’t include salty, buttery ears of corn on the cob, corn salad, corn chowder, corn relish, corn pudding . . . .

Whether this early bounty will continue into the dog days of summer depends on the weather. Corn gets replanted into July so the crop continues into early October. While it loves sunny, hot weather, it also loves (and needs) water. So even farms that irrigate are hoping for stormy skies in the next few weeks, even if it ruins the picnics and barbecue at which the cobs will be eaten.

“Definitely, the lack of water is an issue,” said Ms. Janoski.

Mr. Kaelin, when I caught up with him last week on his cell phone, was busy moving irrigation pipe into his family’s corn fields, and he agreed, “It needs to rain.” And not just because the plants will wither in dry conditions.

When it gets hot and dry, he said, wildlife start searching a little harder outside the woods for something to eat — and there’s not much you can do to keep deer out of a cornfield that’s kept green by irrigation.

So here’s hoping for a few drenching rainstorms.

In the meantime, here are some quick and easy recipes that celebrate the cobs and the kernels.

Worth noting: The sugar in corn’s kernels start changing to starch almost as soon as you pick it (40 percent within six hours), so for best flavor, try to eat corn the same day you buy it. If you must store it, place it with husks still on in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to two days.


Chiang Mai Corn Fritters/Gretchen McKay








Chiang Mai Sweet Corn Fritters with Cucumber Relish

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You might not immediately make a love connection between curry and corn, but they actually pair really, really well in this Thai-inspired fritter. Do yourself a favor and double the relish, which I made with pickling cukes I picked up at the Market Square Farmers Market — you’ll want to spoon it on top of burgers and hot dogs. You’ll find rice flour in your grocer’s organic section.

For relish
  • 1/2 cup white vinegar
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 medium-size unpeeled cucumber, halved and seeded, and sliced thin
  • 1 small shallot, sliced thinly
For fritters
  • 1 tablespoon red curry paste
  • 2 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk, lightly beaten together
  • 1/4 cup coconut milk
  • 1 cup rice flour
  • 1/2 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 large ears corn, cooked, kernels removed
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro
  • 8 cups vegetable oil for frying

Make relish: Combine vinegar, sugar and salt in a medium-size saucepan over medium-high heat and cook until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and let cool slightly, about 10 minutes. Add cucumber and shallot. Refrigerate for 25 to 30 minutes, until pickled.

Make fritters: In a medium-size bowl, mix curry paste, eggs, coconut milk, rice flour, coconut, salt and sugar. Fold in corn, then cilantro.

Heat vegetable oil to 350 degrees in a deep fryer or medium-size deep pot. Use a medium-sized spoon to scoop 4 to 6 rounded tablespoons of corn batter into the oil at a time to avoid overcrowding. Fry until golden, 2 to 4 minutes each, turning frequently to cook evenly. Transfer the fritters onto a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Season with salt.

Serve hot with cucumber relish. Serves 4.

— “I Love Corn” by Lisa Skye (Andrews McMeel, June 2012, $19.99)



Grilled Corn on the Cob with Piquant Sauce

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Corn on the cob is delicious, but can it also be entertaining? John Schlimm, whose family has been in the (Straub) beer business since the 1870s, proves it can in “Grilling Vegan Style,” a comprehensive vegan grilling cookbook and handbook. “Piquant is really just another word for rowdy,” he writes, “which is really just another way of saying FUN.”

  • 2 tablespoons corn oil
  • 3/4 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 4 ears corn, husked
  • 1/4 cup vegan mayonnaise
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and pressed or finely chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 4 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice, from about 1/2 lime

Heat grill to medium-high.

Prepare the corn: In a small bowl, whisk together the corn oil, chili powder and salt. Rub corn all over with the mixture. Wrap corn in aluminum foil and grill it, turning often with tongs, for about 25 minutes. Remove foil and finish grilling right on the grates, about 5 minutes. OR peel back the husks, remove the silk, season the corn, then pull the husks back over the kernels before grilling for a nice smoky flavor.

Meanwhile, make the sauce. In a medium-sized bowl, combine all the sauce ingredients. Slather the grilled corn with the mayonnaise mixture and serve at once. Serves 4.

— “Grilling Vegan Style” by John Schlimm (Lifelong, 2012, $20)


Roasted Corn Salsa

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This quick-cook salsa is a good topping for fajitas or tacos, but beware: it’s spicy. It’s ideal for late summer, when both tomatoes and corn are at their peak.

  • 2 ears fresh corn, shucked and silked or 1 1/2 cups frozen corn
  • 2 garlic cloves, unpeeled
  • 1 small jalapeno
  • 2 medium, ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 6 scallions, white and green parts trimmed and thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon lightly packed chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 teaspoons lime juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Hold corn upright in a large mixing bowl and use a chef’s knife to slice off kernels. (If using frozen corn, cook it directly from the freezer.)

Heat a large, dry cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic cloves and jalapeno and let them cook undisturbed until tinged with black, turning them 2 or 3 times. Transfer garlic and jalapeno to a cutting board, and add corn. Cook, stirring frequently, until kernels are speckled brown and fragrant.

Transfer corn to a medium mixing bowl. Peel garlic and chop it finely. Seed jalapeno if you prefer milder heat and chop it finely. Gently toss with corn. Add tomatoes, scallions, cilantro, lime juice and salt and toss well. Taste the salsa for lime juice and salt and serve it at room temperature.

Makes 2 cups.

— “Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat with Recipes for Every Cut” by Lynne Curry (Running Press, May 2012, $27)


Corn Spoon Bread/Gretchen McKay


Spoon Bread

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If polenta and a cornmeal souffle had a baby, I’ll bet it would look and taste a lot like spoon bread, a rich, creamy cornmeal pudding that originated more than a century ago in the South. This modern version from Martha Stewart gets extra flavor with onion and spicy sausage.

I substituted bulk Italian sausage for the chorizo, which gave the dish a pinkish color, but you also could leave the meat out completely if you want to go vegetarian.

  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for baking dish, divided
  • 1 onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 5 ounces chorizo, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup white cornmeal
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh (from 2 large ears) or frozen corn kernels (do not thaw)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
  • 5 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream

Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 4 minutes. Add chorizo and saute until onion is soft and chorizo is lightly browned, about 4 minutes more. Drain excess fat and transfer mixture to a medium bowl and let cool.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bring water to a boil in small saucepan. Slowly pour in cornmeal, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring, until thickened, about 2 minutes. Add to sausage mixture. Stir in corn kernels, salt and remaining tablespoon butter, and combine well.

Whisk together eggs and cream. Stir into sausage mixture until incorporated. Pour into a buttered 2-quart souffle dish or deep-pie plate. Bake until set and top is golden brown, about 1 hour. Serve hot or at room temperature. Serves 8.

— “Martha’s American Food” by Martha Stewart (Clarkson Potter, 2012, $40)


Curried Corn Chowder

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  • 1 tablespoon extra-light olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 rib celery, chopped
  • 1 large clove garlic, chopped
  • 2 14-ounce cans chicken broth
  • 1 cup chunky mild salsa
  • 2 cups fresh or frozen whole kernel corn
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons curry powder, or to taste
  • 1 cup finely crushed baked tortilla chips (measured after crushed)
  • 15-ounce can cream-style corn
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Sour cream or low-fat plain Greek yogurt for garnish

Heat oil in saucepan. Add onion, celery and garlic; saute until onion is translucent. Stir in broth, salsa, corn, cumin, curry and tortilla chips. Bring to boil; cover and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in cream-style corn, salt and pepper. Heat briefly. Garnish each serving with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt.

Serves 8.

— Pennsylvania Vegetable Marketing and Research Program