Sunday, August 22, 2010

It’s summer, somewhere

So the other day my mom and I were leaving for a trip to the City but wanted to have a quick lunch before we got on the road. To go with a couple pieces of barbecued chicken from the night before, we made the most delicious corn salad using some leftover corn-on-the-cob. I think it might have been grilled. Anyway, after shucking the cobs we added only a few other ingredients to the bowl, but the result was a summer salad vibrant and fresh and truly unforgettable. Having recently discovered a type of French feta that’s softer and less salty than its brinier Greek counterpart, we both thought of it immediately while standing at the counter surveying our lunch makings; I found the plastic tub in the cheese drawer and quickly crumbled a good amount on top of the shucked corn. After that, things just sort of fell into place. I chopped some red onion and added the juice of one lime, salt, and a drizzle of olive oil to the bowl. We sliced some avocado, and had that on the side. It was nothing complicated, but we both sort of gasped when we took our first bites. I say, never underestimate the power of a fine feta cheese. It can do wonders for an impromptu lunch, especially when there is corn involved. 

Let me explain. Until recently, I never could get too excited about fresh corn. I feel sort of guilty admitting this, but there it is. I know that sweeter is usually better with corn, but so often I find it a tad too sweet. Even barely cooked with lots of butter and salt, it’s just too one dimensional for my taste. Plus, the little fibers always get stuck in my teeth, and it’s too messy to try and cut it off the cob. Of course, I am willing to endure minor tooth issues if the taste of such food is unparalleled, but unfortunately I am often disappointed with both white and yellow varieties alike. I’ll still have an occasional ear – since my parents adore it, we have it often during the summer when I'm living here – but isn’t a food I necessarily crave in the middle of August. From peaches and apricots (I made jam!) to wild blackberries, tomatoes, green beans and eggplant, I decided recently that my produce daydream time has reached it seasonal quota, and corn, sadly, didn’t the make the cut.

That is, it was that way, until I had this salad. Again, I have to say, I think it has a lot to do with the feta. I’ve come to think this cheese has a lot in common with bacon: it makes everything taste better, even just a little bit is used. Despite its slightly silly sounding name, it packs quite a punch when used sparingly. The salty, slightly creamy cheese balances the sweetness and crunch of the corn, and the lime brightens up both flavors. A handful of chopped basil adds that lovely, uniquely aromatic complexity only found in fresh herbs, and a few pinches of salt makes everything pop. There’s just something about cold corn that highlights that milky-sweet crunch of the vegetable, a quality that isn’t as pleasurable when served hot. On a warm summer night (which, sadly, we only dream about here in Mendocino, where even August evenings are damp and downright cold) this salad makes for the perfect accompaniment to grilled fish. We had ours with some local salmon for dinner last night, and it was so satisfying we didn’t need potatoes to make it a meal. Even my dad, a strictly butter-and-salt only-on-the-cob man, seemed to be enjoying the salad. And that says a lot, in my book.

Whenever I come up with an original recipe, especially one that began in the spur-of-the moment, I can’t wait to share it with you here. I made it twice just to make sure it wasn’t just a fluke, and it definitely passed the test. The second time around, I used some bi-colored organic corn (a rare find), and it was sweet but not at all cloying, with a cob that secreted that cloudy, corn-infused juice when I pierced a kernel to test for freshness. I’m afraid we’ve had some lackluster, starchy corn lately that might have contributed to my previous snubbing of the popular vegetable, but starting this summer I am ready to revise my views immediately.

Now that I’m officially a corn snob, I will happily have corn, in all its guises, for the rest of the season, but preferably chilled. Perhaps next time I’ll try this one, with farro, maybe with some ricotta salata. Sounds like Tea had a similar experience, too. I remember writing about salad Niçoise last summer, and about eating outside. I suppose I am repeating myself, but I figure its bound to happen at some point. Despite the lukewarm weather we’ve had lately, we’ve been grilling almost every night, and eating lots of green salads with lots of interesting additions. This salad though, is of a different breed, with a milky-sweet crunch that’s light yet substantial. Rather, it’s crunchy with bites of creamy – of a type that’s so refreshing and good it makes a corn skeptic like me have sudden urges to make it again, and very soon. It goes with anything barbeque-esque, or any meal, for that matter, that has the promise of homemade ice cream at its end (here’s looking at you, my trusty Kitchenaid attachment). It may not be sweltering around here, but we can pretend that it is, for fun. It’s summer, somewhere - as my mom says. And judging from all the gorgeous sun-ripened produce we’ve been getting from the farmer’s markets lately, I believe it.

Corn Salad with Feta and Lime

The brand of feta I recommend is called Valbreso. In a pinch, Greek could be used, but it’s worth seeking about the French, as it’s much milder and lighter in texture, qualities that make it more appropriate for this salad. Also, you could try chopped cilantro in place of the basil, or a pinch of cayenne for another variation. The avocado is kind of a creamy bonus that’s not wholly necessary with the feta, but I highly recommend this addition. Oh, and grilled corn is especially nice in a salad - it adds that nice smoky note you get grilled food that is so wonderful cold.

-       3 ears cooked corn, cooled to room temperature (boiled, steamed, or grilled), or raw
-       ¼ red onion, chopped fine
-       ¼ cup feta cheese, crumbled (preferably French)
-       ½ avocado, diced (optional)
-       8-10 fresh basil leaves, julienned
-       Juice of one lime, or to taste
-       1-2 tablespoons olive oil
-       Salt to taste

If you need to cook the corn, place the peeled ears in a large pot of boiling water. Return to a boil, then turn off the heat and cover. Allow to sit for 10-15 minutes, then place corn in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Take the corn kernels off the cob by placing the blunt edge of the ear in a large bowl, then, using a sharp knife, carefully slice downwards along the cob, rotating until all kernels are free. Add red onion, half the basil, lime and salt and toss gently. Add cheese, avocado, and olive oil and toss again just to mix. Garnish with remaining basil and a bit feta, if you have any left. Serve at once, or chill until ready to eat.

Serves 6.