Summer’s sweet harvest

When Steve Cooper was 12, he set up a roadside stand to sell the sweet corn he had grown on his family’s farm and made enough money to spend a day at Canada’s Wonderland amusement park.

Beef brisket slices will pair with corn on the cob for that all-Albertan taste you can only get in late summer.

Beef brisket slices will pair with corn on the cob for that all-Albertan taste you can only get in late summer.

TORONTO — When Steve Cooper was 12, he set up a roadside stand to sell the sweet corn he had grown on his family’s farm and made enough money to spend a day at Canada’s Wonderland amusement park.

Now 40 and owner of his own farm, Cooper tends a much larger operation. On his 101-hectare spread at Zephyr, Ont., northeast of Toronto, he grows everything from asparagus to zucchini in a 30-acre market garden and has another 30acres of sweet corn.

There’s something quintessentially Canadian about biting into a cob of corn, with its burst of juicy sweetness — especially in Alberta, where the cornfields around Taber market their famous harvest every year. Once the harvest comes on, people snap up cobs by the dozens at roadside stands and farmers markets.

Selling fresh produce at farmers markets has been a big part of Cooper’s business. But he and wife Lisa, who were named Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers for 2010, have branched out into other endeavours, including community-supported agriculture, in which members purchase shares and receive fresh produce, and agri-entertainment, which includes tours and a chance to go through a four-hectare corn maze.

“We’re trying to get people to come to the farm and have some fun,” says Cooper.

This year, the theme of their maze is the Heart and Stroke Foundation, and a portion of the $8 entry fee goes to the charity. Past themes have included a Canadian flag and the logo for the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team.

But the best part of growing corn is eating it, and Cooper’s tastes are simple.

“How do I like it? Pick it. Just have the water boiling. Put it in for five minutes, yank it out, a little bit of salt and butter. That’s it,” he says.

Olivia Bolano, executive chef of All The Best Fine Foods in Toronto, also loves eating corn straight from the cob. “But if you want to inject different flavours to your corn, do it with compound butters,” she suggests.

Flavoured butters are easy to create and you’re only limited by your imagination, the 31-year-old says. Season room-temperature butter with salt and pepper, then make it spicy, herby or garlicky to suit your taste and menu. If you want to evoke flavours of Latin America, for example, opt for lime and hot paprika, or maybe mix it up with some ancho chili, she suggests. Another combination is thyme, parsley and chives or use chopped chives alone.

Fresh corn can also be used as an ingredient. At the food specialty company where Bolano works, a customer favourite is a grilled corn and lima bean salad.

Another popular dish is succotash. “Succotash is a native Indian word that means ‘little bits,”’ Bolano explains. “It looks like a salsa, but it’s hot. It’s got corn in it, peppers, beans — lima or fava — and mushrooms. It’s a perfect side dish.”

Cooper recommends visiting a farmers market for the best selection. “Get there real early in the morning and look at how everyone is setting up.”

If the corn comes in on the back of a truck in bushel baskets, chances are it’s been picked that day or the night before by the grower. Wholesale sweet corn is generally packaged in green mesh bags that hold five dozen cobs.

“As a farmer, I would never put my own corn in a green mesh bag because it’s too hard to get it out. If it’s in a green mesh bag, chances are they’re not growing it.”

Peek at the kernels of a couple of cobs. Kernels should be uniform, rounded, not overly large and firm, but not rubbery, which means the corn is probably overly mature and starchy.

If you see dented kernels, the corn is way past maturity, explains Cooper.

There is some etiquette when it comes to choosing corn.

“I always recommend to people not to rip open a cob of corn. You’re going to really tick off a lot of guys if you rip open a cob right to the bottom,” Cooper says.

“You don’t want to make it unmarketable for the farmer. It’s corn politeness. You gotta have corn etiquette. They take a lot of pride in their corn. They don’t want it ripped open.”

Grilled Corn and Lima Bean Salad

Customers of All The Best Fine Foods begin clamouring for this salad when corn season is just on the horizon, says executive chef Olivia Bolano. “It tastes amazing.”

“You have the smoky flavour coming out of the sweet, sweet corn and then the salt from the feta hits you … so that kind of balances out the sweet and the salt from the feta and the acid from the tomatoes helps marry the flavours of the sweet and salty together. I eat it with steak. I like a nice juicy steak and some mushrooms as well. The salad is one of our most popular and people just eat it by the tub.”

2 ears corn, husk and silk removed

45 ml (3 tbsp) olive oil, divided

Kosher or sea salt

500 ml (2 cups) frozen lima beans

250 ml (1 cup) halved cherry tomatoes

1 shallot, diced

50 ml (1/4 cup) kalamata olives, pitted and roughly chopped

30 ml (2 tbsp) apple cider vinegar

250 ml (1 cup) baby arugula

125 ml (1/2 cup) crumbled feta cheese

Brush corn lightly with 15 ml (1 tbsp) of the oil and sprinkle with salt. Place on a lightly oiled grill over medium-high heat and grill until lightly charred on all sides. Let cool and slice kernels from cob. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside.

In a saucepan of boiling lightly salted water, blanch lima beans until tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain and let cool. Add to corn with tomatoes, shallot and olives.

In a small bowl, whisk vinegar with remaining oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour dressing over vegetables and mix together well. Taste and adjust seasoning. Gently fold in arugula and feta.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Source: All The Best Fine Foods, Toronto.

Herbed Butter

This compound butter is easy to make and can be kept on hand in the fridge to serve with fresh corn on the cob. Be sure the butter is at room temperature before mixing with the herbs.

125 ml (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened

7 ml (1 1/2 tsp) finely chopped fresh thyme

7 ml (1 1/2 tsp) finely chopped fresh chives

1 ml (1/4 tsp) kosher or sea salt

1 ml (1/4 tsp) cracked black pepper

Grated zest of half a lemon

In a bowl, mash butter with a fork until smooth. Add remaining ingredients and mix well.

Spoon herb butter onto a square piece of plastic wrap and shape butter into a log. Wrap and twist ends to seal. Refrigerate. Slice into rounds as needed.

Makes 125 ml (1/2 cup).

Source: Recipe created by chef Olivia Bolano, executive chef of All The Best Fine Foods.

Smoky Beef Brisket

Perfectly suited for a casual group gathering, the Southern flavours of smoke and sarsaparilla linger in this relaxed roast. Marinate ahead and then barbecue-smoke for easy hands-off cooking.

2 heads garlic

1 large onion, sliced

1 can (355 ml) root beer

50 ml (1/4 cup) each Worcestershire sauce and red wine vinegar

50 ml (1/4 cup) each packed brown sugar and liquid honey

15 ml (1 tbsp) dry mustard

5 ml (1 tsp) pepper

2 ml (1/2 tsp) salt

1.8 kg (4 lb) beef brisket pot roast (thick double/point end/deckle section, not flat end/first cut)

Slice off top of garlic heads, wrap in foil and bake in a 180 C (350 F) oven until softened, about 50 minutes. Squeeze garlic cloves into large sealable freezer bag; stir in onion, root beer, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, sugar, honey, mustard, pepper and salt.

Pierce roast all over with fork; add to freezer bag and seal, squeezing out as much air as possible. Refrigerate for 24 hours, turning occasionally.

Transfer marinade into a saucepan; add 250 ml (1 cup) water and boil for 3 minutes. Set aside.

For 3-burner barbecue, place drip pan under grill in centre of barbecue; add 1 cm (1/2 inch) water to pan. Light remaining 2 burners and heat barbecue to low (110 C/225 F). Seal soaked hardwood chips in foil and poke with holes to let smoke escape; place under grill over a lit burner.

Place roast, fat side up, on grill over drip pan. Maintaining constant temperature, close lid and cook, turning every 2 hours and basting with marinade, for 5 hours.

Remove roast to cutting board; let stand. Meanwhile, boil remaining marinade until thickened and onions are softened, about 20 minutes. Serve with thin slices of warm brisket.

Makes 12 servings.

Source: Beef Information Centre