A recipe for Chilled Corn Soup with Coconut Milk

Concerning corn, you have no idea.

This food crop is so fertile and adaptable that it grows below sea level (in the Caspian Depression north of the Caspian Sea) and  up to 12,000 feet in elevation (in the Peruvian Andes). It thrives in a massive band on the Earth defined by the 50th degrees latitude north and south. (On the north sit Vancouver, Kiev and Prague, hardly Iowa.)

It’s OK with as little as 10 inches annual rainfall in Russia and can handle the 100 inches it gets on Colombia’s Pacific Coast. It will bear its grain in a speedy three-month growing season but also will be fruitful if subject to a 13-month season.

This bounty helps explain the rapid spread of what are called the Amerindian populations (in truth, empires) in both South and North America for millennia before their colonization by Europe, itself somewhat hampered in population growth by its far fickler grain crops, oats and especially wheat. It also explains the strengthening spread of these same colonizers in the New World who immediately on disembarkation benefited from this hearty crop and the skills in producing it developed by those Native peoples.

An interesting historical side note about those Europeans: In the 1600s, after explorations by Christopher Columbus, maize (or “corn”) was readily taken up by European farmers, not only due to its sturdy adaptability already exhibited in its American birthplace, but also because it was a novel cereal crop and, hence, not subject to the regular tithing due by serfs to their feudal lords. It wasn’t until the early 1700s that corn was so taxed (when the state and upper classes realized — because of corn’s widespread cultivation — the tax revenues that they were foregoing).

The bounty that is corn also explains Bourbon whiskey, high-fructose syrup, ethanol, many plastics, vinyl records, ‘pone, fritters, hushpuppies, grits, margarine, Kellogg’s, Orville Redenbacher, Fritos and Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s pipe.

The United States is both the largest consumer and (by far) largest producer of corn on the globe. Most interestingly, when we do eat it, we eat nearly all of it (upwards of 99%) indirectly, as it were, in the form of animal flesh and dairy products produced by other creatures who first eat it for us.

A wee more than 1% of the corn that the U.S. produces is corn that we eat out of hand, in the form of frozen or canned kernels, for example, or corn on the cob. In 2019, we put out 14.2 billion bushels of corn, of which only 220 million were for food that we would recognize as corn.

Most of the corn that we grow is called “dent” or “flint” corn, meant to be dried and either ground, distilled, made into fuel, brewed, converted into different forms of other foods, fed to animals or exported.

Only a bit of it is what we herald at this time of year, sweet corn. But it is a bit that bellows.

My father went to dental school in Chicago with a Frenchman named Jean-Louis. (I forget his last name; the first names are enough for his French bona fides). Jean-Louis was so enamored of American sweet corn — especially white-kernelled sweet corn — that he took back sufficient seeds to plant a couple of rows of it for his annual summer enjoyment at his home on the Boulevard de la Reine in Versailles.

Such is the allure of sweet corn. (Jean-Louis was derided by his fellow countrymen because in France in those days, the mid-20th century, corn of any sort was reserved solely as fodder or feed for animals.)

Be kind to this most fleeting of foods. Sweet corn is the comet of summer eating, so be mindful and luxuriate in its gifts of opaline hues, teeth-singing sweetness, its juice down the chin and, if devoured off its cob, the happy mustache it signs on you.

The United States is both the largest consumer and (by far) largest producer of corn on the globe. (Getty Images)

Chilled Corn Soup with Coconut Milk

From Gabrielle Langholtz, editor, “America: The Cookbook” (Phaidon 2017). Serves 4 as starter or 2 as a main. Remember that the soup will be served chilled so it may call for more salt than when tasted while it is warm.

Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for garnish
  • 1 leek, white and light green parts only, halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, minced
  • 5 ears of corn, kernels cut from cobs, 3 cobs reserved for corn stock
  • 3 cups corn stock (see following recipe)
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk
  • Salt
  • 1/2 avocado, peeled and cubed
  • 1/2 cup sautéed corn

Directions

In a medium saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat. Add the leek, garlic and ginger and cook until softened but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add the corn, corn stock, coconut milk and salt to taste and simmer for 10 minutes.

Transfer the soup to a blender and process with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil until satiny smooth. Check the seasonings and adjust as necessary. Refrigerate until cold.

Serve garnished with the avocado, sautéed corn and a drizzle of olive oil.

Corn stock

Makes 3 cups

Ingredients

  • 3 corn cobs, cut into pieces
  • 1 leek, white part only, halved lengthwise
  • 1 stalk lemongrass, halved
  • 3 thin slices fresh ginger
  • 1 clove garlic, sliced
  • Salt

Directions

In a medium saucepan, combine all ingredients (except the salt) with 3 cups water and simmer for 20 minutes. Stir in salt to taste. Strain stock. It will keep, covered, for 5 days in the refrigerator or for 3 months in the freezer.

Grilled swordfish dressed with a corn, ...

Johnny Miller, The New York Times

Grilled swordfish dressed with a corn, cilantro and chive salad, in East Hampton, N.Y., June 17, 2021. Sometimes it’s better to ditch marinating and instead quickly cook main ingredients over high direct heat, then flavor them with bright, fresh seasonings. Food styled by Susan Spungen.

Tips

Follow these tips for pickin’, storin’, and cookin’ fresh sweet corn.

  • Pick up each ear of corn you’re hankering after; it should feel hefty. Run your fingers down the length of its husk, feeling for any cavities or bulges, either one a sign of damage or spoilage.
  • There’s no need to peel back any of the husk, even near the tip. It truly is unnecessary and, besides, you ruin the ear for any subsequent buyer. Husks should feel moist, hug the ear, and be dark green (unless someone’s already peeled away the outer husk). You don’t want to buy those anyway. Silks should be tan or golden; any slimy dark brown or black silks are bad.
  • Final fret check: Gently feel with your fingertips around the silked end. The kernels should be plump and firm very close to or all the way to the tippy top.
  • Fresh corn is always best the day that you pick (or buy) it. You may store it for a couple of days (up to three) in the coldest portion of the refrigerator, still wrapped in its husks, in plastic bags. A paper towel wrapped around every third ear is a good way to wick away moisture.

To grill: Pull back husks just enough to remove the silk, then reposition husks. (Alternatively, you may leave silks intact; they easily slide off after cooking.) Soak the ears in cool water for 20 minutes, then place on a hot grill. Cover, grill for 15-20 minutes, turning the ears every 5 minutes or so.