SOME CALL IT DINNER
Story by Sanford D’Amato | Photo by Dominic Perri
My sister and I were prolific eaters from birth, and as we got older every dinner at our house was either a mental or physical fight for food. It’s not as if we were deprived, as my father was a grocer and we always had enough to eat. But as the table was filled with plates of food, we would both be planning strategy on what choice bites would be the first and last to cross our lips. It was as if an announcer roared out over a loudspeaker, “Ladies and gentlemen, grab your forks and GO!”
The majority of the year we would fight over the protein—the only two golden, glistening gams of roast chicken; the crispy ends of a rosy rotisserie beef; or that one slice of roast pork that was perfectly ringed with crispy, burnished fat—all almost normal behavior in the pantheon of aggressive American families. But we both had an odd quirk that separated us from the norm. We adored vegetables.
Starting pre-teeth with puréed broccoli and carrots, the feelings became more intense as the vegetables became more solid. Next to the slice of pork, the almost-burnt quarter onion infused to bursting with the limpid cooking liquid, or the crunchy breadcrumb-herb-coated baked tomato that stood guard near the beef—those were the prizes.
When summer rolled around the game changed as our primal instincts kicked into overdrive. String beans, summer squash, and zucchini—products that made their once-a-year appearance at their peak of flavor—almost made us completely forget that there was any meat present. I would have to plunge my fork into the vegetables and quickly return to my plate with the grace of a fencer, hoping that my hand would not be hit by the tines of her faster fork.
These vegetables were all a prelude to the most anticipated arrival of the year. It had been tempting us since its hint of green leaves first peeked through the soil. Driving past full fields of slender stalks with flowing golden locks, we knew they had to be ready, as they were knee-high a lifetime ago. For me, and many others, corn is the king of summer.
I would spread a layer of newspaper on the side stoop and shuck away within seconds of my dad driving up with the bag of ears. I had already picked out “my ears” so that when my mother moved towards the table with the platter, I was ready. My sister and I rapidly circled the ring to claim our seats, our eyes never leaving the platter or each other’s hands. I threw the first move, as I was pretty fast, and within seconds had the cob buttered, salted, pronged on each end, and brought to my mouth when I realized my sister was halfway through her first ear (she strategically skipped the prongs and went bare-handed—quite impressive). I started to chomp faster to catch up—we were neck and neck, ear for ear—but in the end there was no knockout, just a split decision.
The best corn is consumed the day it is picked, as close to picking as possible, and without refrigeration. Corn was always a vehicle for creamy butter but with sweeter varieties the butter is almost superfluous—however, a light gloss of good-quality extra-virgin olive oil doesn’t hurt. After I’ve had my fill of straight cobs, I go to my favorite corn combo and pair it with large, spice-crusted, deeply seared sea scallops and crispy bacon. I make a sauce inspired by my personal olfactory vice, caramel corn. I deeply caramelize honey to bring out some bitterness, glaze the corn kernels, and deglaze the sauce with a corn cob broth, add lime juice and cider vinegar to balance out the sweetness of the corn and scallops, and finish with a whisper of sharp spicy Hungarian paprika to add a touch of heat to the sweet.
There is only one time of year to have this combo: when Valley corn is at its peak. And I suggest you make a little extra, as this is a dish worth fighting over!
Sanford (Sandy) D’Amato is a James Beard Award–winning chef who teaches cooking classes at Good Stock Farm, his home in Hatfield. He is the former chef/owner of Sanford Restaurant in Milwaukee, WI, and the author of GOOD STOCK: Life on a Low Simmer, his memoir with recipes. Learn more about Sandy and good Stock Farm cooking classes at GoodStockFarm.com.
Recipe for Chargrilled Scallops with Grilled Caramel Corn Sauce and Corn Relish