Ever since Michael Pollen's book The Omnivore's Dilemma and the indie film King Corn have exposed the prevalence of the corn products in our diets, the once-humble grain has been viewed through a lens of suspicion. While there is no denying that this versatile and ancient vegetable/grain has been grossly exploited by industrial agriculture and food producers, let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater. One of the great pleasures of summer is biting into a freshly-picked ear of sweet corn, and indulging in a creamy corn pudding.
A few summers ago, I made corn pudding for a client...
Lois (not her real name) owns several homes across the country, including her sprawling estate in the gentrified countryside of Connecticut, where she would take up residence for the warm months. Her reputation proceeded her, not from the success she has attained as a top player in her industry, but from her notoriety as a difficult and exacting client who allows no margin for error. I knew a number of chefs who never made it past the initial gig; some were dismissed, the rest just refused to return. They warned me that I was on her ever-shrinking list of chefs to audition. In my profession, dealing with difficult clients is part and parcel of the job and I was up for the challenge.
Lois did, indeed, contact me, through her personal assistant, with dates and times for the formal dinner parties that she intended to hold through the remainder of the season. Included, was a list of food preferences as well as those that should be avoided. The latter was blessedly short and reflected no strict dietary restrictions or adherence to quirky fad diets. The list of preferences included organic produce and proteins from local farms, as well as specialty items that could be brought up from weekly trips to NYC. Based solely on what she ate, I already liked Lois.
By request, the first menu was to be comprised of refined, but simple country fare in three courses: a salad, a main course, and a dessert. The salad was a breeze-- arugula selvatica from my garden, heirloom tomatoes from Waldingfield Farm, fresh chevre from Beltane Farm, and croutons made from Bantam Bread Company's kalamata and rosemary loaf. For the main course, I had decided on organic chicken breasts stuffed with truffled sweetbreads, to be served with roasted corn and wild mushrooms, all locally sourced. Dessert was peach shortcake, inspired by March Farm's fragrant peaches, and the cinnamon basil in my garden, which I used to infuse the whipped cream.
I shopped, prepped and arrived at the estate, ready for my benchmark test. I was met at the door by the housekeeper, Nora, an Eastern-European immigrant with a thick accent and stern countenance, which I instantly resolved to soften. Nora showed me around the kitchen and though she offered her assistance, she kept her distance, watching my every move. I invited her to help me shuck corn, hoping that sharing a task would break the ice and provide a gateway for conversation. As we worked, Nora asked me what the "hairs" on the corn were called. I told her that they were called corn silk, though the dried-up darker parts did resemble short, curly hair, to which she made an off-color reference and laughed. I laughed with her, delighted to have found her soft, raunchy spot. Lois walked into this scene, brusquely introduced herself, and told Nora that she was needed in another part of the house.
Left alone in the kitchen, I finished shucking the corn. As I picked up tufts of silk off of the counter top to throw in the bin, my "waste" radar went off and I took a second look at the soft, pale strands. Tasting the silk, I was surprised to find that it was pleasingly crunchy with a mild, bright corn flavor, and amazed that I had never seen it utilized before. I separated the young, tender strands and set them aside to use as a bed for the chicken.
When Nora returned, I was cutting the kernels of corn from the cobs and I inquired about Lois's food preferences. She revealed that Lois had a weakness for cheese and dairy products, particularly cream cheese, which she honored with the status of being "the only food that I cannot live without". I made a mental note and wondered where I could incorporate it into the menu. Looking at the corn, I linked the two together into a corn pudding, knowing that the cream cheese could successfully replace most of the heavy cream in the recipe that I had committed to memory. Changing the menu at this point was risky, but I understood then that the true test was not in securing a job, but in feeling secure in my abilities as a chef.
The risk paid off...the puddings turned out flawless...the sweetness of the corn balanced by the tang of the cream cheese. Confirmation came in the form of empty plates returning to the kitchen, save for a few strands of corn silk. The server reported that the corn silk had stopped the conversation at the dinner table when someone asked if it was safe to eat. Lois, in true hostess form, had taken the first bite and pronounced it delicious.
At the end of the evening, after the guests were gone, the kitchen restored, and my car packed, Nora notified me that Lois had requested my presence in her boudoir. Upon entering the room, Lois looked up at me from her notes and very slowly and deliberately removed her glasses, folded them, and set them down.
I braced myself.
In an even voice, void of expression, she said, "Don't think that I didn't notice the corn pudding."
I held my breath.
"I am absolutely married to it and want you to prepare it in the exact same way for the remainder of the season."
"And the corn silk?" she asked with an arched eyebrow.
I opened my mouth to explain.
She stopped me and in the same tone, replied "...brilliant"
I nodded again and exhaled.
She leaned back in her chair, softened her expression into what I interpreted as a smile, and continued, "I see that you have hit it off with Nora. She has been with me for over 20 years and I consider her my family. She can be very possessive of her kitchen and does not take kindly to intruders. But she reports that you are very competent and a hard worker. We both appreciate that."
She put her money where her mouth was by handing me a check for over double of the amount on my invoice, a practice which was gratefully repeated for the remainder of the summer.
The following spring, I received an email from Lois informing me that she would be summering in Europe that year and possibly for subsequent years, but would contact me if her plans changed. She also expressed a deep regret over her separation from my corn pudding. I replied, thanking her for her generosity, and sent the recipe. I like to think that Nora is now making it for her.
I've revisited the main course from that first dinner and applied some new ingredients and techniques. In the original version, the chicken was stuffed by cutting a pocket in the breast and fastening it with a skewer. Using Activa allows me to cut out the chicken altogether and use the skin to wrap the sweetbread in a tidy shape. Methocel allows me to omit the eggs in the corn pudding, leaving it extraordinarily smooth and creamy.
I can't help but wonder what Lois would think of this new version.
400 g. corn juice, extracted with a juicer
160 g. cream cheese
20 g. cheddar powder
8.5 g. Methocel SGA150 (1.5%)
salt, to taste
Place 1/2 of the corn juice and the cream cheese in a saucepan and heat over medium heat until cream cheese is melted. Remove from heat and add the remaining juice, the cheddar powder and Methocel. Blend well with an immersion blender, cover and chill for at least 4 hours to hydrate. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. and stir in the salt. Fill molds and bake for 10-20 minutes, depending on the capacity of molds. Unmold and serve immediately or hold in a 200 degree oven for up to 20 minutes.