Few states say corn like the great state of Iowa. Ghostly baseball teams step out from the waving green fields, and whole towns celebrate the harvest in one big greasy buttered-ear festival. Those vast acreages are mostly destined for ethanol or corn syrup production, but plenty of people still raise a patch of old-favorite varieties. Traditional varieties of sweet corn are pretty hardy and easy to grow and can be planted soon after the frost-free date. The newer sugar-enhanced varieties must be planted a couple of weeks later, once the soil has warmed to 65ºF; supersweet varieties even later.
Sow the kernels 1/2 inch deep in cool, moist soil, or 1 to 1 1/2 inches deep in warm, dry soil. Space seeds 6 inches apart in rows 30 to 36 inches apart. For a continuous supply of sweet corn, select varieties with progressive harvest dates. Arrange rows in blocks or even in circles to aid wind pollination. One or two lonesome rows don’t stand much chance of being pollinated. Cultivate shallowly to control weeds. If rain is scarce, irrigate during the emergence of tassels, silking, and maturation of the ears.
Pick ears during the “milk stage” when kernels are fully formed but not fully mature. This stage occurs about 20 days after the first silk strands appear. Kernels are then smooth and plump, and their juice appears milky when pierced with a fingernail. If you get a clear sap, wait longer. If the kernel has gone doughy, it’s too late. Another sign of readiness is when silks turn dry and brown. To harvest, snap the ears off by hand with a quick downward push, then twist and pull. Cut cornstalks into bin-sized lengths soon after harvest (good for the compost pile).
George Formaro, owner of Centro Restaurant in downtown Des Moines and a renowned chef in Iowa, grew up playing hide-and-seek between rows of corn in his father’s garden.
“I’m Iowa-born and -bred. I’ll put corn in anything,” he says. “Corn and pasta. Cut corn in chili. It adds taste and texture.”
Formaro’s recipes here prove it: His favorite sweet corn dish? “I like the street style in Mexico,” he says. “It’s smeared with mayonnaise and cotija—a dry cheese similar to grated Parmesan—and then dusted with chile pepper. When friends try it, they love it. But I don’t tell them what it is: mayo on corn.”
“Everything goes with corn. Butter is always good,” he says with a laugh.