Folks may flock to the mid-Hudson in September to pick apples and October for pumpkins, but sweet corn reigns supreme as summer reaches its peak and draws to an end. The earliest varieties begin to come in the second week in July, and the latest ones are brought in by the first of October. But peak harvest happens in August.
If you’re visiting or living here now, don’t let the month go by without feasting on the brief wonder that is Zea mays, as fresh as you can get it.
In the 1980s, Ulster County produced the most sweet corn in New York State. Nowadays Ulster has fallen to third place statewide, but it’s still a hotbed of corn production, Its epicenter the rich alluvial soils deposited by the Rondout and lower Esopus Creeks in the Route 209 corridor.
Until sold to the not-for-profit NoVo Foundation in 2013, Gill Farm was the largest producer in the county, devoting more than 1200 acres on the Hurley Flats to the growing of sweet corn. That site is now the home of the Hudson Valley Farm Hub, whose focus is on training farmers in sustainable agriculture methods. Although plans are afoot to begin producing food-grade grains for cornmeal, the only corn grown there these days is field corn used for animal feed. The Farm Hub is also a partner in the New York State Integrated Pest Management program’s Sweet Corn Pheromone Trap Network, testing new alternatives to chemical pesticides for cornfields.
The largest sweet corn producer in Ulster is now Davenport Farms (www.davenportfarms.com) in Stone Ridge. Since 1840, five generations of Davenports have farmed the family’s 1000-plus acres, which in recent years have been divided up among four cousins.
Sweet corn has long been their specialty and the favorite for flavor of many a local corn connoisseur. It’s available from many regional supermarket chains and smaller stores, as well as from Davenport Farms Market at 3411 Route 209.
Jostling with the Davenports for the title of tastiest sweet-corn source in Ulster County is the Wallkill View Farm Market (http://wallkillviewfarmmarket.com) at 15 Route 299 in New Paltz. Unlike Davenport’s no-nonsense, all-business approach, Wallkill View has embraced agritourism, enticing visitors of all ages with an elaborate corn maze with picnic tables tucked inside. But locals mostly just come for a sack of fresh-picked corn.
Pick-your-own, corn mazes etc.
While pick-your-own operations have become highly popular draws for day and weekend visitors to our region, u-pick corn-on-the-cob hasn’t quite taken off in the same way as yet. We were able to identify two such operations in Ulster County: Hurds Family Farm (www.hurdsfamilyfarm.com) at 2187 Route 32 in Modena and Kelder’s Farm (https://keldersfarm.com) at 5755 Route 209 in Kerhonkson.
Both Hurds and Kelder’s have gone all-in on providing family-friendly entertainment, offering such enticements for the little ones as petting zoos, bouncy houses and games. Kelder’s Farm is particularly renowned as the home of the 13-foot Gnome Chomsky, formerly the world’s tallest garden gnome and the third-tallest at present.
Hurds and Kelder’s offer corn mazes, an ingenious way to repurpose cornstalks once the harvest is done, and an added attraction to apple- and pumpkin-picking operations later in the season.
Among other farmstands that sell sweet corn in Ulster County also host corn mazes are Clarke’s Family Farm, 2086 Route 44/55, Modena (http://clarkesfamilyfarm.com); Dressel Farms, 271 Route 208, New Paltz (www.dresselfarms.com); DuBois Farms, 209 Perkinsville Road, Highland (https://duboisfarms.com); Jenkins & Lueken Orchards, 69 Yankee Folly Road; New Paltz; (www.jlorchards.com); Minard’s Family Farm, 250 Hurds Road, Clintondale (www.minardsfamilyfarms.com); Prospect Hill Orchards, 40 Clark’s Lane, Milton (https://prospecthillorchards.com); Rich Farms, 260 Glasco Turnpike, Saugerties (https://richfarms.com); and Saunderskill Farms, 41 Garden Lane, Accord (https://saunderskill.com).
Farms that offer extra bells and whistles and kiddie attractions are far from your only choices when you’re out shopping for a dozen ears of corn for dinner, of course. Two more farms that, like Davenport, pride themselves as specializing in fresh-daily sweet corn but don’t go the maze route are Apple Hill Farm (https://applehillfarm.com) at 124 Route 32 South in New Paltz and Boice’s Farm & Garden (www.facebook.com/BoicesFarm) at 600 Kings Highway in Saugerties.
The weekend farm markets hosted by many towns in our area are also great places to find sweet corn for sale. They’re often the preferred point-of-sale for smaller family farms and organic operations that don’t maintain their own on-site farmstands. Explore more!
A shopper’s guide
Choosing the perfect ears for your dinner guests can prove a metaphorical sort of corn maze. If you haven’t tried to grow corn yourself (and most home gardens aren’t big enough to provide proper pollination), then you may have only a vague idea about the different types and varieties of sweet corn. Here’s a primer:
“Variety” denotes a particular hybrid cultivar of corn, bred to have certain desirable characteristics such as whether it’s early or late to mature, yellow, white or bicolor. “Type” or “genotype” refers to how fast the sugars in the corn kernels break down.
Our great-grandparents only had the choice of normal or “sugary” (su) type corn, whose natural sugars quickly turned starchy after picking. Some corn fanciers (longtime garden columnist Lee Reich among them) still prefer the older, more corny-tasting hybrids such as Golden Bantam and Silver Queen; but these days you pretty much have to grow them yourself.
Commercial corn growers have almost entirely switched over to planting the more modern “sugar-enhanced” (se) and “supersweet” or “shrunken” types (sh2), which remain tasty longer. (Shrunken refers to the collapsed look of the dried seeds.)
Se varieties have a higher initial sugar content and can be stored (or shipped) for three to five days before eating. Sh2 types have double the sugar content of su types, with a storage life of five to ten days. They also have a different kernel texture: crisper on the outside, less creamy on the inside. If it noticeably pops when you bite into it, it’s likely an sh2.
As for varieties, farmstands typically offer whichever is ready for harvest, sometimes more than one at a time. You may have a choice of colors, though that’s more a matter of aesthetics than flavor. All but five of the two dozen sweet corn varieties currently recommended for fresh-market growing in New York State by the Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are bicolor. All but seven are se types.
Early and Second Early varieties include Jester II, Sweet Chorus, Trinity, Chippewa, Temptation and Bon Appetit, all of them bicolor se types. Of the three Midseason varieties, all bicolor, Mystique is se and Candy Corner sh2; Sweet Rhythm is a bit of an oddball, belonging to a newer hybrid class that combines strong points of the other types, called “sweet breed” or sb.
Most sweet corn varieties bred for our short-seasoned northerly growing zone are classified as Main or Late. Bicolors include the sh2-types Xtra Tender 277a and 278 and Obsession, and se-types Bojangles, Absolute, Accord, Delectable, Precious Gem, Lancelot and Brocade. Late white varieties Argent, Silverado and Silver King are all se-type. And late yellow varieties, both sh2-type, are Bandit and Zenith.
Yes, folks: That’s only two yellow varieties commonly grown in New York all season. Lucky for the characters seeking someone with “hair as yellow as corn” that Into the Woods isn’t set in the modern era.
To select for freshness, look at the break in the stem where the ear was removed from the plant. It should be white and a little “juicy,” not shriveled, dry and yellowing. Husks should be as bright green as possible and still retain some moisture. Ears should feel plump, and rounded near the tip; young, underdeveloped ones are neither sweeter nor tenderer than large ears.
Preparing sweet corn
Since most of the sweet corn varieties available from farm markets these days are sugar-enhanced or supersweet, the traditional advice to put the water up to boil before you go out to the field to pick the ears is no longer as pertinent as it used to be. Even so, it’s important to keep your haul as cool as possible on the way home and then refrigerate it until ready to cook. Bring a cooler stocked with freezer packs in your car when you head out to the farmstand, if you can.
And frankly, boiling the heck out of your corn-on-the-cob is way passé. Steam it for not more than five minutes instead, or microwave it for about four minutes with the inner leaves of the husk still on.
If you cut off the bottom before microwaving, all you need to do when it’s done is to yank the husk off by the tassel, and voilà! Most of the cornsilk will slip off with it.
Grilling ears of corn right in the husk is also a popular method of preparation. Bruce Davenport recommends soaking them for about 15 minutes beforehand so that they steam inside the husks.
My favorite sweet corn recipe
It’s easy to tell that I still use my copy of Vegetarian Gourmet Cookery (1971) all the time. Both the front and back covers have fallen right off, and many pages are spattered with food drips. But alas, it’s long out of print; the author, Alan Hooker, founder of the Ranch House restaurant in Ojai, California, died in 1993.
It’s probably safe at this point to share a simple recipe from its pages (slightly adapted, as I don’t have a pressure cooker) that represents for me the culinary zenith of what can be done with the two superstars of the late-summer harvest: tomatoes and sweet corn.
Fresh Corn and Tomato Soup
Wash, quarter and core (don’t peel) three pounds of fresh tomatoes.
Steam them over one pint of water for 15 minutes. Set aside to cool; reserve steaming water.
Cut kernels from the cobs of two ears of corn (stand on end and cut downwards).
Simmer corn kernels for seven minutes in two tablespoons of butter (margarine if you’re vegan), half a cup of water, one bay leaf, a pinch of powdered thyme, a quarter-teaspoon each of marjoram and basil, two grinds of black pepper and five cubes of vegetable bouillon (or five level teaspoons of Better than Bouillon). Chicken bouillon can be substituted, but the idea here is to preserve the fresh corn and tomato flavor as purely as possible.
Put the cooked tomatoes through a Foley mill or coarse sieve.
Add tomatoes and steaming water to corn mixture. Return to a boil, lower heat, simmer for ten minutes and serve. This is what summer in the country tastes like.
Upcoming local corn festivals
Beacon Sloop Club Annual Corn Festival
Sunday, August 14, noon to 5 p.m.
Pete & Toshi Seeger Riverfront Park
2 Red Flynn Drive, Beacon
Corn-on-the-cob, cold watermelon, hot chili, cold drinks, live music, environmental advocacy. The sloop Clearwater should be moored nearby for deck tours. Across the Hudson at West Point, the Military Academy will join in to celebrate the festival with a 5K/10K run/walk.
Third annual Uncle Shoehorn’s Funky Corn Festival
Saturday, September 3, noon to 6 p.m.
Wright Family Farm
329 King’s Highway, Warwick
Adults $20 advance/$25 gate, Children three to twelve $10, younger free
Uncle Shoehorn Funky Dance Party featuring live bands No Soap Radio, Wood Hippie, E’lissa Jones Band. Corn-themed farm fun for all ages including two corn mazes, food trucks, kettle corn, Mexican street corn, cornhole tournament, cow train rides, candy/pumpkin/apple cannons, local craft beer, ciders, wine. Rain or shine. Bring chairs/blankets. No dogs or coolers.
Orange County Sweet Corn Festival
Sunday, September 11, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Sunflower Valley Farm
366 County Road 12, New Hampton
Outdoor event with family-friendly activities and vendors to benefit community service projects by Minisink Valley Kiwanis.