By July, there’s no denying the change in seasons in produce. Last Saturday at my local farmers’ market, our resident asparagus farmer had “last weekend” written in bold letters above her display. In my garden and in the fields throughout Castroville, splashes of day-glow purple signal the flowering end of the spring artichoke season. But as the titans of spring wind down to their annual period of warm weather reseeding, another group of vegetables makes their long anticipated summer harvest debut. Among these is the manifestation of summer: sweet corn.
Sure, we can get corn year round now. Over the years as new super sweet varieties have been introduced, some of the off-season corn is actually pretty good. But there is something about the combination of long, warm summer days and satisfyingly light meals that makes corn all that much better. Distance from the growing source is also a huge factor as corn is one of several starchy vegetables that are better eaten as close to harvest as possible.
It helps too that the price of corn drops in direct proportion to the distance it travels. Like watermelons and pumpkins, the weight of the product combined with the ever increasing cost of transportation has made long distance corn shipping less and less practical over the years. A single pallet of corn weighs over 2,000 pounds (nearly twice as heavy as a pallet of strawberries for example), so there are fewer boxes to absorb the cost of transportation. A happy byproduct of this is that the corn we buy today is by and large much fresher and most retailers pay far more attention to local sources.
For me, the local corn of choice comes from Brentwood — a rich farming area adjacent to the Bay Area east of San Francisco. Like many areas of the U.S., growing conditions for corn in Brentwood are ideal and throughout the summer months my family will be in sweet corn heaven. Depending on spring growing conditions, we also see a marked increase in organic corn availability in July but supplies are sporadic and expensive depending on how far away the product has to travel.
When selecting corn you should look at the outside condition of the husk and silk as well as the kernels inside. Fresh corn husks should be dark green and moist. The silk (the translucent tendrils that come out of the top of the ear) should be a pale yellow and not brown. I generally peal back about two inches of husk to look at the kernels — uniform kernel development almost to the tip insures maturity. If you are opening an ear of organic corn, don’t be surprised if you encounter a small green hitchhiker. The corn earworm is one of the most pervasive pests to sweet corn and it is nearly impossible to control using organic growing methods.
Peppers and tomatoes are also starting but corn and the just opening first sunflowers in my garden say summer like nothing else. The neat thing about corn is it seems that just about everywhere I travel in the summer, family or friends associate corn with a place (usually nearby) as well as a time of year. And when the “best corn I ever had” story eventually emerges, the source is always different while the story is essentially the same. And it’s true — the best corn is always grown near you.