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A guide to picking sweet corn this season

Here we find ourselves in the middle of sweet corn season — what a treat!

But while the ears in the grocery store bins may sometimes be labeled with where they’re grown —Brentwood, for instance, or by a local farmer here in Sonoma County — we’re almost never told what variety they are.

That’s a shame, because the variety makes all the difference in degree of sweetness, how long that sweetness will last and how much good corn flavor the kernels have.

What we call sweet corn has changed profoundly since 1978, when the first super-sweet corn, called ‘How Sweet It Is,’ was introduced. Before that, popular varieties like Silver Queen, Golden Bantam, Early Sunglow, Double Standard and many more all shared one characteristic: They were sweet while maturing on the stalk, but as soon as they were picked, enzymes in the kernels began to change the sugar into starch. If you grew the corn yourself, your best bet was to get the water boiling on the stove before you picked the ears from the garden.

Also, if you let those pre-1978 varieties mature on the stalk, they tended to become starchy and mealy. They were best harvested when the kernels were just touching each other but not crowded together. That’s why you sometimes see people picking through the corn bins at our markets, pulling back the husks to examine the kernels and tossing back those they deem too mature (please don’t do this — who wants to buy those rejected, partially de-husked ears?). This dehusking might be avoided if people knew the ears were a modern variety that’s much sweeter and holds its sweetness much longer than in the past.

Today, there are some very new types that are state-of-the-art examples of the breeder’s handiwork. Colors are indicated for white (W), yellow (Y), bi-color (BC) and ornamental (O).

Standard sugary types (called SU): These were the ordinary sweet corn varieties popular before 1978 and still preferred by some for their taste if not their sweetness.

Golden Bantam (Y): Small but very flavorful ears, since 1820

Honey and Cream (BC): Excellent quality, often seen at roadside stands

Jubilee (Y): All-around standout for rich corn flavor

Silver Queen (W): Very common at farmers markets; good corn flavor

Xtra Sweet (SH2): Due to a recessive gene, this type of sweet corn produces mostly sugar, not starch, and holds its sweetness for a week or more. When the kernels dry, they shrink, so this corn has been labeled SH2 for “shrunken, version 2.”

Early Xtra Sweet (Y): All-America winner for superior flavor and sweetness

Honey & Pearl (BC): Superior in tenderness, flavor, sweetness

Indian Summer (O): AAS winner; yellow, white, red and purple kernels

Supersweet Jubilee (Y): Like popular Jubilee, but with super sweetness

Sugary-Enhanced types (called SE): Breeders have combined the best features of SU and SH2 corn types to produce the SE category. They combine lasting sweetness with rich corn flavor.

Ambrosia (BC): Very tender, holds sweetness two weeks after picking

How Sweet It Is (W): All-America Selections winner, very tender

Incredible (Y): Honey sweet, with rich corn flavor. Seek this one out.

Silverado (W): One of the best white, sugary enhanced varieties

Sugar Buns (Y): Tender, retains sweetness for two weeks

Synergistic Hybrids (called SY): This is a new category, introduced in the 1990s, in which breeders have combined SH2 and SE kernels on the same ear. This corn has a very high sugar content, tender-crisp texture and slowed conversion of sugar to starch.

Gotta Have It (W) or (BC): A trademarked corn of super-high quality

Simply Irresistible (Y ): Trademarked hybrid superior in taste and tenderness

The following varieties are also SY hybrids, and almost all are bicolor. They are all rated as taste-test winners for crispness, tenderness, corn flavor and sweetness: Allure, Cameo, Cuppa Joe, Espresso, Essence, Kristine, Latte, Montauk, Primus, Progression, Providence, Renaissance, Revelation, Sparkler, Spellbound, Sweetness and Temptress.

These varieties are not genetically modified (GMOs). They are true hybrids, bred by cross-pollinating various varieties. GMOs have had genes from foreign plants or animals spliced into their DNA, something nature never allows. Some field corn, for instance, has a pesticide-producing gene from a bacterium spliced into its genetic code.

Wouldn’t it be helpful to know what you’re buying when you pick up ears at the store or farmers’ market? A card on the bin could simply name the variety and its category. Given the great difference in categories and varieties of corn, that would be a boon to buyers.

When the corn is high, it’s a shame to limit it to corn on the cob. This corn chowder is scrumptious. Just imagine it with grilled chicken.

Corn Chowder

Serves 6

8 ears of corn

4 quarts water

1 small onion, diced

3 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

2 cups potatoes, diced

2 cups heavy cream

2 tablespoons hot sauce, or to taste

Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Cut the kernels from the ears of corn and reserve kernels and cobs.

Bring the water to a boil in a large pot, add cobs, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and steep for 30 minutes. Remove cobs.

In a large sauce pot on medium heat, saute the kernels and onion in butter for 5 minutes. Add turmeric and saute for 1 minute. Add 3 quarts of corn broth and bring to a simmer.

In a separate pan, cook the potatoes in the remaining corn broth until tender, about 4 to 5 minutes. Drain the potatoes, reserving them and their cooking liquid.

Strain the corn and onion mixture from the cooking liquid in the sauce pot. Puree two-thirds of this mixture in a blender, using enough cooking liquid to make a smooth puree.

Push the puree through a fine-mesh strainer back into the sauce pot. Add the remaining corn-onion mix and potatoes. Bring the pot to a simmer. Stir in heavy cream and hot sauce.

Thin if necessary with reserved potato water, or thicken if needed with roux made with 3 tablespoons of butter and four tablespoons of all-purpose flour. Adjust salt and pepper seasoning. Garnish with chives and serve hot.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net

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