At the start of summer, nothing whets the appetite quite as much as fresh sweet corn, tossed onto the grill, and slathered lavishly with heaps of salty herb butter. From the critters that sometimes come along inside corn from the Tucson CSA—no problem; just toss them in the compost heap—to the pop-pop-popping sound the ears make when they contact the hot grates and the messy and shameless eating-off-the-cob process itself, nothing brings the fecundity of summer home quite so well as fresh corn.
But by the end of the summer, we may find ourselves growing tired of buttered and grilled corn. We may crave something creamier, more in the vein of comfort food to nourish ourselves as we cast off the heat of summer and edge back into the kitchen. Those of us with only swamp coolers are not quite ready to crank the oven’s long-forgotten dials just yet, but perhaps turning on one eye isn’t out of the question.
As luck and nature would have it, when the last trickle of corn is coming in, my basil plants are making one last effort as well, and I have to trim off the new growth nearly every day. Corn, basil, and tomatoes play beautifully off of one another, whether in a succotash, raw salad, or in a fresh corn polenta.
In this simple dish, I started with some lightly sautéed okra, also from CSA, and some gorgeous local tomatoes purchased at the Food Conspiracy Co-op. This time of year, we may also be growing weary of the once-novel crunchy fried okra, so this is a nice dish to use up produce that might otherwise feel obligatory. If you don’t have okra, summer squash would be great here, or just use more tomatoes if you have a bounty that you’d like to use up.
The recipe for fresh corn polenta is slightly adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty. He describes it as a “chunky, savory porridge.” I tried both feta (which Ottolenghi uses) and goat cheese, and preferred the goat cheese for its creaminess. But no need to go out and buy a new cheese—just use whatever’s on hand.
3 ears of corn
1 cup water
1 1/2 tbs butter
1/2 cup goat cheese (chevre)
salt and pepper, to taste
Shuck and clean the corn, then slice off the kernels. I’ve yet to find a non-messy way of doing this, so I just roll with it and let my dog clean up what’s fallen on the floor. Place kernels and water and a little salt in the saucepan and bring to boil, then simmer for 10-12 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer kernels to a food processor (or powerful blender works). Reserve cooking liquid. Process for a few minutes until you have a thick paste.
Return kernel paste to the cooking water in the saucepan and cook again for 10-15 minutes more. You are looking for a thick consistency like mashed potatoes. Add butter, cheese, and a little more salt and pepper. Cook two minutes more. Taste and adjust for seasoning. Top with the following ragu, or anything you like. Ottolenghi does a tomato and eggplant sauce. I am tinkering with the idea of bacon lardons and sautéed spinach on this as well, though it’s a little out of season.
Okra & Tomato Summer Ragu
1 Tbs olive oil
½ cup sliced onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1.5 cups okra, sliced into ½ inch rounds
½ tsp cumin
¼ tsp smoked paprika
¼ tsp salt
1/8 tsp white pepper
2-3 medium tomatoes, preferably local heirloom variety
olive oil to finish
Place olive oil and sliced onion in a cold pan and sauté over medium-low heat until onion softens. Add garlic and okra, sauté a few minutes more. Add cumin, paprika, salt and pepper. Add tomatoes and sauté just a moment more. You don’t want to cook the tomatoes, just warm them. Serve atop a scoop of polenta. Top with a chiffonade of basil and a little finishing olive oil.