Local corn, Italian flavor

Use seasonal staples in recipes that evoke another place.

Richard B. Levine/NEWSCOM
Sara Jenkins (not shown) has used fresh summer corn to create an Italian-style dish that marries rustic flavor and delicate texture.
Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin
Olives and Oranges by Sara Jenkins
Carla Roley/Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin
Sara Jenkins has used fresh summer corn to create an Italian-style dish that marries rustic flavor and delicate texture.

"Staycation" has become a trendy term this summer for those would-be travelers who are staying close to home instead of taking on the high costs of vacationing this year.

But let's face it, twirling around the neighborhood pool doesn't quite feed the imagination the same way as a visit to a new city or different culture.

The same applies to food. In other words, corn on the cob may be comfortably familiar and plentiful, but chances are this seasonal staple smothered in butter and salt won't offer transformative memories.

Sara Jenkins, restaurant chef and author of the forthcoming cookbook "Olives and Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus, and Beyond," has a good solution: Combine local, seasonal ingredients with recipes that evoke another place.

Ms. Jenkins, whose father was a foreign correspondent, grew up in various countries along the shores of the Mediterranean. As a result, her recipes emphasize the simplicity of fresh ingredients and lots of high-quality olive oil. Emulating the spirit of a place – say the stylish warmth of Italy – can transform a humble vegetable like corn into an elegant sformato, or custard.

"Sweet corn is really not anything anyone eats in the Mediterranean at all," says Jenkins. But even if America's national pride is considered animal feed abroad, that shouldn't stop you from enjoying a delightful marriage of rustic taste and delicate texture (see recipe).

Now settled in New York City, Jenkins attests that a dish with the right combination of flavors has the power to transport her back to those childhood days in Tuscany. "A great piece of grilled fish can make me feel like I am sitting on the edge of the Mediterranean with the salt air whipping in my face," she says.

Now that's how to have an evening in Italy after a day at the local pool.

Kendra Nordin

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Sweet Corn Sformato

Sformato is a baked Italian custard, traditionally made with seasonal vegetables and ricotta. Though sweet corn is not a common Italian ingredient, this recipe is a nice example of adapting a technique to local ingredients. Serve this dish as an elegant appetizer or with a salad or soup to make a light supper. You can make the custards up to a day in advance. Gently steam them in the molds to reheat, or enjoy them at room temperature or cold.

3 medium to large mixed sweet and mildly spicy peppers, such as sweet banana and poblano (not bell)

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon thinly sliced fresh basil leaves

1-1/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt, plus more for sprinkling

4 ears corn, shucked

3 cups heavy cream

9 large egg yolks

Coarsely ground black pepper

Char peppers under a gas broiler (or over a hot charcoal fire), turning frequently, until skin is blackened and blistered on all sides. Transfer to a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap; let sit for 15 minutes. Rub skins off peppers and discard cores and seeds. Slice peppers lengthwise into 1/8-inch-wide strips. Place in a bowl and toss with oil, parsley, basil, and 1/2 teaspoon salt; set aside.

Preheat oven to 275 degrees F.

In a large, heavy saucepan, combine corn, cream, and remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes. Purée mixture with a hand blender or in an ordinary blender, then strain through a fine sieve into a large bowl, pressing on solids to extract as much flavor as possible.

Lightly beat egg yolks in a large bowl. Slowly whisk in 1/2 cup warm cream mixture to temper yolks, then slowly whisk in remaining cream. Divide mixture among six 5-ounce ramekins, place them in a baking dish, and fill dish with enough hot water to come halfway up side of ramekins.

Cover with foil and bake until sformati are just set, about 45 minutes. Remove from water bath.

Just before serving, top each with a tangle of peppers, a drizzle of the oil from peppers, and a sprinkle of salt. Serve sformato warm, at room temperature, or cold.

Source: Excerpted with permission from the forthcoming ‘Olives & Oranges’ by Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox, © 2008. Available from Houghton Mifflin & Co., September 2008.