Corn Picked Fresh Off the Farm

If you grow your own, eat it on the cob and beware of late-night visitors

Raccoons were at it again last night. I awoke to the sound of them ripping open the corn that grows about 30 feet from our bedroom window. The low-lying electrical wire that surrounds the corn rows doesn't deter them. Nor does an ingenious trap rigged up from rusty dishwasher side panels, industrial screening, and mismatched pieces of pipe by our inventive farmer/landlord who lives next door.

I can't really blame the raccoons, though. Fresh sweet corn is haute cuisine to them. My family devours the late-summer crop with equal gusto. For my husband and me, it's a seasonal high point. And it's about the only vegetable that my four-year-old son won't snub.

Only in the past year, however, since we've been living on a farm where corn is the staple for cows, coons, and families, have I come to fully appreciate it.

Twice a day we hear the sound of mashed field corn pouring down the chute from the silo, and once a day we walk into the long, tall rows of Silver Queen, Kandy, and Butter-and-Sugar corn in search of perfect ears the coons haven't found first. After we toss the husks over the fence to our pig, it's only a matter of minutes before we're sinking our teeth into the butter-slathered kernels.

Corn can't get much fresher. Once it's snapped from the stalk, its sugars begin to turn to starch, so growing your own is the way to go. But if you don't have space in your yard or your schedule for a garden, local farm stands are the next best thing. And always steer clear of supermarket sales advertising a dozen ears for a dollar.

The fresher the corn, the less you'll need to fuss with it. Most people prefer to boil or steam corn, but it is also excellent grilled.

And it needs little adornment. James Beard, the doyen of American cooking, wrote that fresh corn, ''Eaten with lavishments of butter, salt, and pepper, is one of the most satisfying foods we have.''

Another zealous fan is Betty Fussell, who each August hosts an all-corn dinner at the James Beard House in New York. In her cookbook ''Crazy for Corn'' (Harper Perennial, 237 pp., $16) she writes, ''In America, cooking and eating corn on the cob are sacred matters ....'' But that doesn't keep her from demonstrating corn's versatility with 170 tantalizing recipes.

She makes a good case for cooking corn dishes such as polenta, posole, and timbales, which connect us with other cultures.

But these days, when guides to a ''quick and easy'' route to suppertime are being snatched up at bookstores as quickly as Pocahontas dolls at the toyshop, it follows that the simplicity and satisfaction of corn on the cob make it the home cooks' favorite.

To boil or steam corn, Ms. Fussell suggests you ''Forget the 3-minute rule.'' Instead zap the corn in a pot for only 30 seconds. And don't salt the water; it'll toughen the kernels. For a different flavor, try mixing the butter with basil, cilantro, mint, cumin, curry, or chili powder. Or try the butter recipe featured below.

And always remember that corn on the cob is meant to be eaten with enthusiasm. Miss Manners might not approve, but some folks roll it over in a block of butter. And a little grease at the mouth's corners is easily forgiven.

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