The Kruse Report
The story of corn traces a very long arc — from Central America, where it sustained the Olmec and Mayan cultures, to contemporary restaurant kitchens, where it remains a favored vegetable. Along the way it’s been a basic ingredient in a wide variety of ethnic dishes and comfort foods, many of which have been the subject of recent reinvention.
Global interpretations. There’s something very satisfying about corn on the cob. It’s eaten by hand, it’s juicy and sweet, and lately it’s also had a pronounced piquancy as elote has taken menus by storm. A popular street food in Mexico, elote is corn on the cob that typically is slathered with mayonnaise, coated with white cheese, dusted with chile powder and served on a stick.
Some operators use this basic concept as the starting point for more fanciful flavor treatments, such as the Italian version at Three Aces in Chicago, which uses basil, fennel pollen and Parmesan cheese along with the requisite chile powder. Across town at Arami, a Japanese concept, the corn is basted with miso butter and finished with spicy sansho seasoning and Japanese sea salt.
The chains, meanwhile, tend to play it straight with more classic approaches. At five-unit Bandera it’s grilled with chile butter, and at T.G.I. Friday’s chipotle-roasted corn on the cob was part of a summer promotion.
Corn has maintained its position as a staple in Latin cuisine, and it’s a critical component of such Mexican dishes as The Cheesecake Factory’s Sweet Corn Tamale Cakes, a long-running favorite. Corn also stars in the Fire-Roasted Chile Relleno and the White Corn Guacamole at California Pizza Kitchen. Corn tortillas are requisite for trendy street tacos, and El Torito uses them as the basis of an entire street-taco menu. Options include Pork al Pastor with fresh green onions and Slow- Roasted Carnitas with tomatillo sauce. Arepas, a type of corn cake that’s ubiquitous in many South American countries, are represented by the Sweet Peruvian Corn Cakes with roasted- pineapple salsa at Bahama Breeze.
Right at home. Corn is also an essential element in U.S. cuisine, too, and hominy, or dried corn kernels, was a colonial classic. It receives a modern treatment at The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland, which makes Crispy Hominy with pork cracklings, pickled onions and lime juice. Operators are also adding new touches to grits, a variant of hominy that has long been a staple in the Southeast and is enjoying a resurgence. Examples include recent specials like Denny’s Southern Shrimp & Grits with jalapeño-lemon-butter sauce and Cracker Barrel Old Country Store’s Shrimp n’ Grits Skillet with diced green tomatoes, crumbled bacon and cheese. The latter was accompanied by roasted cornbread, another Southern standard that’s staging a bit of a comeback. Rutherford Grill in Rutherford, Calif., part of Napa Valley, serves it in a skillet, and Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill offers it with honey-pecan butter.
Corn looms large in snacks and fun foods, as well. Corn dogs, fixtures on the state-fair circuit, have cropped up on chain menus, as at Sonic, America’s Drive-In, where they are coated in a sweet corn batter and promoted as “hot dog utopia.” Independents push the envelope a little: Shrimp Corndogs come with truffle-oil mustard at Oakleys Bistro in Indianapolis.
Popcorn has been on the comeback trail, too, and designer versions are everywhere. Holeman & Finch Public House in Atlanta flavors it with bacon and caramel, while at A-Frame in Los Angeles, kettle corn is topped with furikake, a salty Japanese condiment. Grahamwich in Chicago offers fresh popcorn as a snack or a side. In both cases it is seasoned with grated Parmesan, chopped chives, sea salt, cracked pepper and truffle oil.
Potently potable. No corn-related development is more surprising than the rebound of moonshine, notorious as an illegally distilled spirit traditionally made from the grain. Legalized moonshine is being manufactured in small batches with artisanal ingredients and sold to mixologists, who use it as a base for creative cocktails. In perhaps the perfect marriage of old and new,Paul Fehribach at Big Jones in Chicago concocted a Summer Manhattan made with rye, which got a shot of sweetness from corn-cob syrup — a mainstay of Appalachian cookery in which cobs are boiled for several hours to obtain the absolute essence of corn.
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta. E-mail her at email@example.com.
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