"A light wind swept over the corn, and all nature laughed in the sunshine." - Anne Bronte
Summertime’s table wouldn’t be complete without Southern-style meals made up of fresh sweet corn, sliced tomatoes, fuzzy peaches, and fluffy buttermilk biscuits. Each one of those holds a special place in the hearts of most people down here, and with good reason. These humble foods are part of our heritage…the great part. They remind us of people we have loved in years past who made them for us: mothers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, neighbors. Food is always better when shared with those we love, and doing so cements those happy moments in our hearts and minds.
When my sister and I were children, our family would sometimes load up the station wagon and drive up to the Carolinas to visit our dad's side of the family. Each person there brings to mind different fond memories, and some of them, of course, are food-related.
I've written before about Uncle Jessie, for example, and his love for peaches and cream in a bowl with a little sprinkle of sugar, a delicacy to our young lips when we visited him in Laurinburg, N.C. And sometimes he'd be decadent and even add some banana slices to the mix, the perfect partner for the juicy peaches swimming in the sweet, cold liquid.
When we visited them, we’d have the privilege to sit down at Aunt Ann’s table to enjoy the fabulous meal she prepared for us: mostly I remember the potato salad and sweet corn, and how perfect they tasted to me. Aunt Ann always wanted to refill your plate, too, gracious Southern hostess that she was. We would all sit around the table, covered with food that was simple and delicious, and we children would listen to the adults reminisce about their younger days. Those memories and stories were triggered by the food in front of us.
Next we'd travel to Fayetteville to visit Aunt Margaret, who was a gracious hostess and who made the best buttermilk biscuits in the world. Forget the ones you thought were the best, because I promise you, Aunt Margaret's were IT. I loved watching her hands as they worked the tender dough, squeezing it between her thumb and index finger to make the perfect uniform-sized biscuit each time. They baked up golden brown on top, and when they were split in half, steam would rise from the white, fluffy inside, just begging for a slathering of butter ... or cinnamon-spiced apple butter ... to top it off. There was almost no need for anything for dinner but those wonderful concoctions. Except maybe some of those homegrown tomatoes!
Dad's oldest sister, Aunt Inez, lived in a small house surrounded by agricultural fields. In the the 1970s, there were lots of corn fields, tobacco fields, and cotton fields all around the parts of North and South Carolina where my dad's siblings lived. I was practically entranced by them as our station wagon zipped along the highways as we traveled, watching row after row fly by as we passed. I loved the old rusty-roofed barns I’d see on the tobacco farms as we drove by, too. They remind me of those days when I see them on farms now.
When we arrived at the home of Aunt Inez, I distinctly remember fields right beside her house; I believe they were corn fields. I was small at the time, so whatever crop it was felt very tall to me. Like I could get lost in it. Or like some creature could come out from between the rows of corn, and get me! I don’t remember whether Aunt Inez cooked for us while we were there, but I do remember those cornfields, and how amazing it was for this little beach girl to see them up close. Dad would pull an ear of corn and show me what it looked like as he peeled back the husk and the silks to show me the perfectly symmetrical rows of shiny corn, and, sometimes, a fat worm, inside, too.
I’ve always loved tender, sweet corn, and with my husband's help, even tried to grow my own when the boys were little. It wasn’t easy. Farming isn’t easy, period. But the payoff is one we’re all grateful for, when we stop to think about it. Summertime offers us abundant opportunities to be thankful for the bounty of the earth, and to do some good cooking, too. Are you ready?
Here are three of my favorite recipes using corn, including my fresh corn salad. I hope you enjoy its sweet, crisp, flavorful goodness! It features sweet corn, peppers, tomatoes and more, with a cooling dressing to tie it all together.
Summertime corn salad
3 ears of tender sweet corn (white is often most tender, like Silver Queen)
1/2 cup minced red onion
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 small or one medium cucumber, peeled and chopped
16 ounces grape or cherry tomatoes, halved (or one pound other tomatoes, chopped)
1/2 medium red bell pepper, cored, seeded and minced
1 small jalapeno, minced (seeded if you don't like heat)
1 very small yellow summer squash, minced, seeds removed
juice of one fresh lime
1/2 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon minced jarred garlic (or 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder)
salt and pepper, to taste
Place the minced red onion into a small bowl with the red wine vinegar, and let stand for at least 15 minutes.
Cut the corn off the ears, and then scrape down the cobs with a blunt knife to extract the remaining juices into the same bowl with the corn.
Add halved tomatoes, cucumber, bell and jalapeno peppers, and squash to the bowl with the corn.
Toss. Add the pickled red onion (minus the vinegar), and then toss again.
Add the sour cream to the bowl, then the lime juice, and 1 teaspoon minced jarred garlic (or 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder). Gently fold in until all the ingredients are well coated.
Refrigerate, covered, for at least two hours to overnight. The longer it is mixed, the better the flavors mingle. Add salt and pepper when serving.
Next, my Mexican corn casserole is comparable to the delicious street corn, Elotes, that you can buy at the state fair every year. So delicious!
Mexican Corn Casserole
4 cups whole kernel corn… Use frozen or roast your own and slice kernels off the cob
1 cup of good mayonnaise
1/2 cup Mexican Crema (or heavy cream)
1 teaspoon or more hot sauce, to your taste
1 cup grated cheddar and one cup crumbled Mexican white cheese
Spices: Garlic powder, cayenne pepper, hot sauce, etc. Customize to your likes!
In a small mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except corn and cheese. Taste, and adjust seasonings if you would like more heat or saltiness.
Pour this sauce over the corn in a larger mixing bowl. Stir to combine, then pour into a buttered 8 x 8 dish or pie plate.
Top with both cheeses, and bake in a 350° oven for 25 to 30 minutes.
One-pot sweet corn and squash pasta by Mama Steph
2 cups dry short pasta, like cellentani, rotini or bowties
2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
One yellow squash
2 to 3 ears of fresh yellow sweet corn
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Juice of one half a lemon
6 to 8 ounces of soft mozzarella or goat cheese
Salt and pepper
Place oil or butter in a large skillet with deep sides, to warm over low heat.
Thinly slice zucchini and yellow squash, and cut corn off of cob.
Raise heat to medium-high.
Add squashes, corn, pepper flakes and garlic to pan, and allow to sauté in the oil or butter for three or four minutes, stirring frequently.
Add dry pasta, spreading across the top of vegetables evenly.
Add 5 cups water and 2 teaspoons of salt, stirring, and bring to a boil.
Boil for about 11 minutes, according to package directions on pasta.
Stir frequently so pasta doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan.
If water is evaporating too soon, add another cup, and lower the heat, while maintaining boil, until pasta is done. Taste and add salt, if needed.
Chop fresh mozzarella into cubes, and sprinkle over warm pasta, and spritz the dish with the fresh lemon juice.
Try your own versions of these recipes, adding different herbs or spices that you like most. Visit my “What Southern Folks Eat” Facebook page to tell me how you changed it, or if you tried and enjoyed my version!
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is "Mama Steph." She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three young adult sons who are considerably taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at whatsouthernfolkseat.com, or email her at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com