Local chefs share their secrets for the perfect corn

Saul Ortiz, corporate executive chef of Tacos & Tequila at Luxor, waxes absolutely poetic as he talks about preparing grilled corn.

“The aroma as it steams in its own husk is unparalleled,” Ortiz said. “It’s amazing. On a summer afternoon, summer night, you have a margarita and you want something light, you’re talking about a memorable occasion.”

Your grilled corn doesn’t usually inspire you quite the same way, does it? We get it, and so we asked some local chefs to share their secrets for the perfect product.

Most of us in Southern Nevada don’t usually have the luxury of getting corn fresh from the field, but Ortiz said choosing wisely will ensure that you get the best ears possible.

“Start with a nice yellow sweet corn; that would be my best option for a little sweetness,” he said.

You don’t want corn that’s too young, he said, because the kernels won’t be developed. Too old, and the kernels will be tough.

“You want to look at the base of the corn,” where it was cut from the stalk, he said. “If it’s like your finger in diameter, it’s young corn; if it’s a lot bigger, it’s too old. Make sure it’s in the middle, between a quarter and a dime.”

But you’re not done yet.

“You want to hold it and grab the husk,” he said. “You want to see the top, what colors the hairs (also known as silk) are. If they’re green, most likely the corn is still younger. Brown and red is between middle age to mature.”

He grills it in the husk. While some of the chefs we talked to like to soak the husks to ensure there’s enough moisture to steam the corn, Ortiz said if you choose medium corn, there will be moisture enough. Grill it until the husks begin to char, pulling a bit down and checking to see if the corn is cooked. By the time it is, the husks, whose role is to hold in the moisture so the corn steams, will be thoroughly charred.

“You see the charred husks and the bright golden corn, and think, ‘How is this possible?’ ” he said. “You would think by seeing the husk that the product would be burned or charred. It’s not going to have char marks, but it’s going to have all the flavor of the char from the husks.”

But when the corn is cooked, Ortiz isn’t done. He pulls down the husk, “almost like a pony tail,” spreads the corn with a little bit of mayonnaise mixed with some lime juice and sprinkles it with cotija cheese and some pepper flakes; he prefers Tajin brand, generally found in the Hispanic section of the supermarket.

“You have the sweetness of the corn, saltiness of the cheese, citrus from the mayonnaise and kick from the pepper flakes,” he said. “The flavor you get from that combination is amazing.”

Jamaal Taherzadeh, executive chef of Border Grill at Mandalay Bay, also likes to grill corn in the husk, but he soaks it for 24 hours first.

“Throw the whole corn on the grill,” he said. “The outside of the husk starts to burn, the water the husk has absorbed starts to steam and you let it char long enough that the actual kernels start to char.”

At the restaurant, they pull the husk back and tie it with a strip of husk. Then they brush it with house-made aioli, sprinkle it with cotija cheese and shake on some cayenne pepper, then serve it with lime, for their own version of Mexican street corn.

Taherzadeh said he got his inspiration from a somewhat unusual source.

“I’m Iranian, and my mom used to make corn when I was growing up,” he said, soaking it and putting it on the grill.

“And then she’d just fill up a pot with really, really salty water, and right when it comes off the grill she would dip it in that salt water,” he said. “It’s called balal.”

Marc Marone, corporate chef of the Tao Group, also soaks his corn in the husk, but in exceptionally cold water and for only 15 to 20 minutes.

“When you go to grill it, that acts as a sort of protective barrier to the flame, and kind of steams it,” he said.

And then Marone seasons the corn — before cooking.

“I always like to put some sort of butter or seasoning on the corn and pull the husk up before I throw it on the grill,” he said. “If I’m making tacos, I’ll do a Mexican-style one.”

His personal favorite, Marone said, has an Asian flair. He mixes a little hoisin sauce, a little soy sauce and a little lime juice with sambal oelek or an Asian chili paste.

“Mix that and a tiny bit of mayonnaise, just to bind it,” he said. “Just before I put the corn on the grill, I rub that on the corn itself, pull the husks up and put the corn on the grill. In 15 to 20 minutes you get a vibrant yellow color and the corn is cooked. I open it up a little bit so some of the corn is exposed and put it right over the direct heat. It kind of caramelizes that hoisin-chili paste.”

Since some people don’t like eating the corn on the cob, he’ll sometimes cut the kernels off.

“That makes a great dressing,” Marone said. “It kind of creates its own little salad.”

Vincent Pouessel, executive chef of DB Brasserie at The Venetian, also seasons his corn before cooking, but with a different method.

“We gently peel it,” he said, “and then we rub it with a butter with a spicy pimenton from the Basque region. Pull the husks back up, put it in the fridge for a couple of hours until the butter gets hard, so that the butter and the spice and the salt and pepper really penetrate and flavor the corn. And we peel it back and throw it on a hot grill. And then we just shave the kernels and saute them with some baby zucchini and a little bit of sherry vinaigrette.”

Doug Bell, executive chef of Pot Liquor at Town Square, cuts the tips off the ears, then soaks the corn in water and salt overnight.

“Pull it out and grill it on all sides for about 10 minutes, until the husk is nice and black,” he said. “The corn inside steams and gets color and flavor from the grill.”

At Pot Liquor, they also cut it off the cob, to make a succotash with garbanzo beans, bell peppers, garlic and pearl onions.

“Cut it off the cob and saute it with all the other goodies,” Bell said.

Oh, and while you’re grilling the corn, be sure to appreciate the aroma.

“I love that smell,” Ortiz said. “That smell reminds me of a farm, of a garden.

“Of freshness.”

GRILLED CORN ON THE COB WITH CILANTRO QUESO FRESCO BUTTER

6 ears corn on the cob in husks

About 1/4 cup kosher salt

1/2 cup queso fresco (Mexican-style fresh cheese)

1/4 cup butter, softened

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1 teaspoon lime zest

2/3 cup coarsely chopped cilantro

Remove silks from corn but leave husks intact. Put corn in a large bowl with 1/4 cup salt and water to cover. Soak about 1 hour.

Heat a grill to medium-high (350 to 450 degrees). Meanwhile, whirl queso fresco, butter, mayonnaise and lime zest in a food processor until fairly smooth. Add cilantro and pulse to blend. Spread half of the butter mixture on a plate and spoon the rest into a small bowl.

Grill corn, covered, turning occasionally, until tender (peel back husks to check), 10 to 15 minutes. Peel back husks from cobs and tie with a strip of husk. Roll cobs in butter mixture on plate to coat (use a flexible spatula to help), then set on a platter. Serve with remaining butter and more salt to add to taste.

Serves 6.

— Recipe from Sunset

GRILLED JALAPENO-LIME CORN ON THE COB

8 ears fresh corn, husks removed

Vegetable cooking spray

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup butter, softened

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced

1 small garlic clove, pressed

1 tablespoon lime zest

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

2 teaspoons chopped fresh cilantro

Garnish: lime zest

Preheat grill to 350 to 400 degrees (medium-high). Coat corn lightly with cooking spray. Sprinkle with desired amount of salt and pepper. Grill corn, covered with grill lid, 15 minutes or until golden brown, turning occasionally.

Meanwhile, stir together butter and next 5 ingredients. Remove corn from grill and cut into thirds. Serve corn with butter mixture. Garnish, if desired.

Serves 8.

— Recipe from Southern Living

GRILLED CORN WITH HOISIN-ORANGE BUTTER

4 tablespoons butter, room temperature

1 tablespoon hoisin sauce

2 1/2 teaspoons finely grated orange peel

3/4 teaspoon chili-garlic sauce

Salt and pepper

6 ears of white corn, husked, rinsed

Chopped fresh cilantro

Prepare grill (medium-high heat). Mix first four ingredients in small bowl to blend. Season with salt and pepper.

Grill corn until beginning to soften, turning occasionally, about 5 minutes. Brush all over with hoisin butter; continue to grill until corn is tender, brushing occasionally with more hoisin butter, about 5 minutes longer. Transfer to platter; brush with more hoisin butter. Sprinkle with cilantro; serve.

Serves 6.

— Recipe from Bon Appetit

GRILLED CORN WITH MISO BUTTER

4 tablespoons room-temperature unsalted butter

1 tablespoon miso

4 husked ears of corn

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Salt

Toasted sesame seeds, for garnish

Mix the butter and miso in a small bowl.

Rub corn with vegetable oil; season with salt. Grill over medium-high heat, turning often, until lightly charred and tender, about 5 minutes.

Spread corn with miso butter and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.

Serves 4.

— Recipe from Bon Appetit

GRILLED AND DILLED CORN ON THE COB

1/2 cup canola mayonnaise

1/2 cup light sour cream

1/4 cup chopped fresh dill

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

10 ears shucked corn

Cooking spray

2 ounces cotija cheese, queso blanco or feta cheese, finely grated (about 1/2 cup)

1 1/2 teaspoons chipotle chili powder

Preheat grill to medium-high heat.

Combine first six ingredients in a shallow dish.

Place corn on a grill rack coated with cooking spray; cover. Grill corn 12 minutes or until lightly charred, turning occasionally. Place hot corn in mayonnaise mixture; toss to coat. Place corn on a platter; sprinkle with cheese and chili powder.

Serves 10.

— Recipe from Cooking Light

Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com. Find more of her stories at www.reviewjournal.com and bestoflasvegas.com and follow @HKRinella on Twitter.

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