Ask most people what makes their favorite food appealing, and they’ll describe its delicious flavor or rhapsodize over its mouth-watering aroma. For many, food’s appeal is measured largely in terms of taste and smell.
Texture, on the other hand, usually receives less attention. It’s true that a few foods are touted for their creamy consistency, with yogurt being one such item that comes to mind. But, really, when was the last time you were tempted to eat a food (processed snacks aside) based on how it felt rather than tasted?
Take fresh corn, for example. Every year as piles of freshly picked ears start to appear around the country, lovers of all things corn find any number of ways to highlight its seasonal sweetness. Joe Yonan of the Washington Post finds it goes perfectly as the headliner in a simple pasta sauce. Melissa Clark of the New York Times uses it to flavor ice cream. Even my favorite radio foodie program, the Splendid Table, re-aired a story recently explaining the genetic basis for why different strains of corn display differing levels of sweetness.
It’s clear that the fleeting presence of corn that is sweet is a much anticipated event. Yet none of these stories mention another of corn’s attributes that I find equally appealing — a satisfying crunch. Not a dry, one-dimensional, popcorn-style crunch, mind you. No, the crunch I’m talking about is more three-dimensional, with the crunch of the kernels enveloped in a spray of tiny droplets that coat the tongue in a summery essence of sweet corn.
That’s why I love the recipe I’m sharing today. It’s a crunchy mix of fresh corn, zucchini, red peppers, and leeks, all of which are widely available in grocery stores and farmers markets this time of year. The vegetables are cut into pieces of approximately the same size and then cooked quickly, or sautéed in the vernacular of cooking, in a hot pan with a small amount of fat.
There are two benefits to this method of cooking. First, sautéing causes less nutrient and flavor loss than boiling, another technique commonly used to cook vegetables. Second, sautéing maintains more of the vegetables’ fibrous structure, which means that corn that is sautéed retains more of its bite.
To prep the vegetables, start with the corn. Shuck each ear by removing its husk and silks. (The Kitchn has a series of photos here that show how to do this.) Then, using either your hands or a small brush, remove any stray silks that remain lodged among the kernels. To remove the kernels from the cobs, cut each shucked ear in half, stand each half cut-side down on your cutting board, and with a sharp knife, carefully slice the kernels from the cob several rows at a time.
Prepping the other vegetables is a little easier. You’ll need to give the leeks a good washing (a good tutorial is here), but otherwise simply trim and clean the vegetables and then cut them into pieces roughly the same size as the kernels.
At that point, all that’s left is to sauté the vegetables. You do this by heating some olive oil in a pan until it starts to shimmer and then add the vegetables in stages, starting with the leek (which can tolerate a long cooking time) and ending with the corn (which cooks in much less time). The key is to move the vegetables around from time to time with a spoon (like a haphazardly done stir fry) so they cook evenly.
That’s all there is to it. Of course, you may prefer to add some additional summery seasonings. I gave my dish a decidedly Italian tilt by including some dried basil flakes (which are ok to use if they still smell basil-ly while they are in their container and you add them during the cooking process) and some freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and a touch of freshly squeezed lemon juice, but you could add any seasonings that appeal to you and your family.
Late Summer Vegetable Sauté
kernels from six ears of corn (about 3 cups)
2 red peppers
2 medium zucchini (about 1 pound or 450 grams)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
1 teaspoon ground pepper (preferably freshly ground)
1 teaspoon dried basil flakes
1 ounce (30 grams) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1-2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (optional)
1. Prepare the corn: For each ear, remove its husk and silks, cut it in half, and then stand it cut-side down on a cutting board. With a sharp knife, carefully slice the kernels from the cob several rows at a time. Discard the cobs.
2. Prepare the leek: Cut off the dark green part of the leek and the approximately 1/2 inch of of the root end and discard both. Slice the stalk in half lengthwise, and then carefully rinse each half under running water, pulling apart the layers to ensure that any dirt and grit lodged among them is washed away. Return the washed leek halves to the cutting board and cut them into thin horizontal slices.
3. Prepare the red peppers and zucchini: Trim and clean the red peppers and zucchini and chop into small pieces about the same size as the corn.
4. In a sauté pan large enough to hold all of the vegetables, heat the olive oil until it shimmers. Add the leeks and 1/8 teaspoon of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes. Add the zucchini and another 1/8 teaspoon of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Add the peppers and another 1/8 teaspoon of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add the corn, the dried basil flakes, and the final 1/8 teaspoon of salt and cook, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the ground pepper, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and lemon juice, if using. Serve immediately.
A Note on Seasoning with Salt: Salt is one of the most important seasoning agents available to the home cook. Food that is properly seasoned with salt will taste fuller and more three-dimensional without tasting salty. The key is knowing how much salt to add and when to add it. Since salt added earlier in the cooking process penetrates food more deeply than salt added at the end, adding salt, a little at a time, during each stage of the cooking process results in better seasoning using less salt. In this recipe I’ve provided instructions for adding salt, 1/8 teaspoon at a time, each time a vegetable is added to the pan. When combined with the sodium in the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, these amounts result in approximately 1,600 milligrams of sodium in the entire dish, or about 230 milligrams of sodium per serving, a very low amount. (The 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend an upper limit of 2,300 milligrams of salt per day for most people under the age of 51, so 230 milligrams is 10% of that limit. By way of contrast, most items sold at fast food restaurants, including so-called healthy fast food chains like Panera and Chipotle, have between 500 and 1500 milligrams of sodium per item.)
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