Buttered, Salted & Beloved: Our Ode to Corn

It's not summer in Colorado until Olathe Sweet Corn comes to market. Talk to a farmer, try our tips, and see Potager's glorious four-course corn menu.

My first summer in Colorado made me homesick for California’s bountiful fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Then I searched out the local farmers markets and started discovering luscious, Coloradogrown tomatoes, watermelon, peaches, and greens. Hmm, here’s some good eating after all, I thought.

Then my husband and I arrived in Fruita that first August, based for a few days in a cute VRBO with a luxurious kitchen. We cooked mouth-watering grass-fed beef from local farms, alongside locally grown micro-greens, and dined al fresco with a bottle of Two Rivers Merlot and a view of the Colorado National Monument.

So when we passed an “Olathe corn/6 ears for $2” sign on our way from a visit to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, we stopped the car and turned around. A woman playing with her children went into her house and brought out a bag of corn, which we took straight to our VRBO, shucked, and boiled.

We buttered and salted the ears, and bit into kernels exploding with sweetness and flavor. Suddenly I loved Colorado.

Lend us your ears

Want to know what makes Olathe Sweet Corn so special? Ask a farmer who grows it.

Photo by Jeff Nelson

What makes Olathe (pronounced oh- LAY-thuh) corn so tasty that King Soopers takes out radio ads announcing its arrival in the produce aisles and Delta County hosts an Olathe Sweet Corn Festival every August? Just ask John Harold, owner of the Tuxedo Corn Co. He’s been growing Olathe corn since a farmer named Dave Galinat developed it in the 1980s, and in 1987 he trademarked the name “Olathe Sweet” Sweet Corn.

How did the crazy spring affect the harvest? When will we be able to get corn?

Harold: Around the 24th of July. It’ll be two weeks later than last year. The moisture was welcome, but it came at inopportune times, and the cool weather slowed everything down. It’s 180 degrees from last year, when we had no moisture. If you put the two together, we had two perfect years. But Mother Nature doesn’t work that way. I don’t think it will affect the flavor, but we won’t have the volume we had last year. Last year we planted 1,800 acres and this year we’re right around 1,600.

Is that going to affect the price?

Harold: Our corn is all hand-picked, so we bring a lot of labor on the H-2A program out of Mexico. We have for 25 years. This year the wage rate, which is set by the federal government, is $13.13, which is 22.8 percent higher than it was last year. We were thinking, since we’re going to grow less corn, maybe we could use less labor. But out of the 150 people that came last year, every one of them wants to come back. These people are good workers, and they’re happy to make a substantial amount of money and go home. But box costs went up, pallet costs went up, and we’re going to raise our prices 6 to 7 percent. What the supermarkets are going to sell it for, I don’t know.

What would you do without migrant labor?

Harold: We’d go out of business, no question about it. It’s not that people are lazy where I live. There’s full employment. We don’t have any choice but to bring in migrant labor.

We can only get this corn for about six weeks every year. Why won’t it grow in other places?

Harold: We’ve tried in Mexico, where my son has a farm, and in the Southeast, but we haven’t been successful. I think the temperature swing isn’t big enough. It loves the warm days and cool nights, about a 35-degree swing in summer from the heat of the day to the cool of the night. That, along with the sunshine, is what brings the flavor.

What do you see in the future for Olathe corn?

Harold: I think our corn has changed the industry, but the big problem is labor. This has been the most difficult year I’ve ever had with the H-2A program. We applied with a May 6 date of need and didn’t have labor until the 29th of June. Most growers are trying to find a variety of corn that’s tough enough to pick mechanically.

How do you describe Olathe corn to someone who’s never had it?

Harold: I give a couple of illustrations. If they wear glasses and the corn pops, they get a little juice on their glasses because the corn is that tender. Also, it’s got a corn flavor and a sweetness to it. I go to corn trials and people ask me to taste their corn, and I tell them that people can buy sugar cane and get the sweetness, but what you’re looking for is corn flavor as well. We always have a good time arguing back and forth.

Harvest time in Olathe

The tenderness of Olathe sweet corn demands a lot of TLC from humans, not machines. Farmers including John Harold, far left, bring in hundreds of workers from Mexico to plant the corn in the spring, then cultivate it for harvest in July. They hand-pick the corn and then load it onto trucks to be boxed, iced, and shipped off to your local market. A wet, cold, and long spring has made for a later and smaller output than Coloradoans are used to. “This is why farmers don’t go to Las Vegas,” Harold says. “We’re gambling every day.”

Corn in four courses

We asked Paul and Eileen warthen, the new team running Denver’s venerable farm-to-table restaurant Potager, to create a meal using corn in each dish. The results, with Paul’s recipes and Eileen’s pairings, are as beautiful as they are tasty.

Consomme

Photo by Rachel Adams

“We used the silks here. We use the cobs to make corn stock, or to soak in cream to make corn ice cream. There’s no waste.” —Paul Warthen

Gargouillou

Photo by Rachel Adams

“Traditionally, there are 15 to 25 elements going on on a gargouillou plate. It gives you a chance to have a little more fun while you’re eating. Plating is random.” —Paul Warthen

Cavatelli

Photo by Rachel Adams

“Cavatelli’s an easy pasta to make at home. You can use a $25 cavatelli crank, or you can make them by hand by rolling them out to the size of a Sharpie, cutting them, and pushing them with your thumb.” —Paul Warthen

Dessert

Photo by Rachel Adams

“Paul’s cornbread recipe is so delicious, so light and cakelike, I thought this should be a dessert.” —Pastry chef Hillary Horne

Make it at home

The recipes behind those yummy Potager dishes

Huitlacoche cavatelli with corn purée and vegetable salad
Cavatelli

Ingredients

4 oz. huitlacoche (found in specialty food markets)
4 oz. ricotta
4 c. flour
1 egg
1 tsp. salt

Directions

Process the huitlacoche and ricotta to a smooth paste. Add egg and salt. Slowly add flour until a tacky ball forms. Wrap in plastic and let sit in fridge for at least 30 minutes. Divide and roll into tubes about the size of a Sharpie. (If you have a cavatelli roller, use it; if not, no worries. This pasta has been rolled by hand for hundreds of years!) Cut tubes into ¼-inch-wide pieces, flatten, and roll with the tip of your thumb. Let dry. Cook in boiling water for 3-5 minutes.

Corn Purée

Ingredients

3 ears of corn
½ c. water
2 oz. butter
1 tsp. salt

Directions

Cut kernels off corn. Bring water to a boil; cook corn for 10 minutes, until it is soft. Add butter, salt. Blend and strain.

Shaved Vegetable Salad

Ingredients

1 zucchini, cut in strips
1 cucumber, cut in strips
1 roasted red pepper, julienned
2 Tbsp. basil leaves
2 Tbsp. cilantro leaves
1 Tbsp. lime juice
1 Tbsp. sunflower oil

Directions

Combine first five ingredients; toss with lime juice and sunflower oil. TO ASSEMBLE Place a little corn purée in bottom of bowl, add pasta, and top with shaved vegetable salad.

Corn-inspired Gargouillou These four recipes can be served together or individually as tapas.

Corn Cakes

Ingredients 

2 c. corn kernels (about 3 ears)
½ c. rice flour
½ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt

Directions

Mix dry ingredients. Process raw corn. Add dry ingredients. Cook small pancakes in nonstick pan over medium-low heat for three minutes, flip and cook another three minutes.

Succotash

Ingredients 

1 c. onion (Walla Walla or Vidalia), diced small
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
½ c. sweet bell pepper, diced small
4 c. corn
1 c. fennel, small dice (optional)
1 c. zucchini, small dice
1 tsp. lemon zest
½ c. diced tomato
2 c. corn stock
2 tsp. fresh dill
3 oz. butter Salt to taste

Directions

In a medium pot, sweat onion, garlic, and bell pepper for two minutes on medium heat. Add corn (and fennel, if using) and continue cooking for another five minutes, stirring constantly. Add zucchini, lemon zest, tomato, and corn stock. Bring to a simmer. Add dill and butter, continuing to simmer for 10 minutes. Finish with salt to taste.

Charred Corn Salsa

Ingredients 

2 c. corn kernels
1 c. roasted Anaheim peppers, peeled, seeded, and diced*
½ c. onion, small dice
3 Tbsp. cilantro, chopped
1 lime, juice and zest
½ c. tomato, chopped
1 Tbsp. salt

Directions

Char corn kernels over medium-high heat in castiron pan. Mix with all other ingredients. *Potager uses a wood oven for roasting. You can also roast peppers on a sheet tray in the oven, rotating them as each side turns black and blisters. Once all charred, place in a bowl and cover with a towel to steam.

Corn Soufflé

Ingredients

2 oz. butter
½ c. cooked quinoa
1 c. corn
1 qt. cream
½ c. chèvre
6 eggs
4 egg whites
Salt

Directions

Preheat oven to 350°F. In a medium pot, melt butter. Add quinoa and corn; stir to toast (3-5 minutes). Add cream and reduce slowly by half. Add chevre. Stir with a wooden spoon; let cool slightly. In a bowl, combine whole eggs and egg whites. Blend cream mixture until smooth, then gradually add egg mixture. Spray ceramic soufflé molds with nonstick cooking spray or rub with butter. Fill molds threequarters; bake in a water bath for 40–45 minutes.

Cherry cornbread upside-down cake

Cornbread

Ingredients 

2 c. cornmeal
2 c. all-purpose flour
½ c. cake flour
1½ c. sugar
1½ Tbsp. salt
3 Tbsp. baking powder
6 oz. butter
6 eggs
2 c. milk
1 c. buttermilk
⅔ c. oil

Directions

Preheat oven to 325° F. Sift dry ingredients together. Melt butter and whisk into eggs. Whisk milk, buttermilk, and oil together, then into eggs. Add the wet ingredients into the dry.

Cherry Compote

Ingredients

4 c. pitted cherries
½ c. sugar
1 lemon, juiced

Directions

Simmer all ingredients together for 15–20 minutes until syrup coats a spoon. Let cool. Spray bottom of baking pan. Spoon in one layer of cherry compote. Pour cornbread batter over layer, about halfway up the pan. Bake 30-40 minutes.

Corn Pastry Cream

Ingredients

Seeds from 1 vanilla bean
2½ oz. cornstarch
12 oz. sugar
½ tsp. salt
3 egg yolks
3 ears corn, kernels removed, cob reserved
1 qt. milk

Directions

Whisk dry ingredients into yolks until mixture forms ribbons. Steep corn and cobs in milk on low heat for 20 minutes. Blend and strain hot mixture and add to yolks while still hot, whisking vigorously. Return to heat, and continue whisking for five minutes. Pour into container, placing plastic wrap directly on cream, and chill until set (about two hours).

Corn Ice Cream

Ingredients 

6 ears corn
2 c. milk
1 qt. cream
1 ½ c. sugar
2 eggs
4 yolks

Directions

Shuck corn and cut kernels off the cob, being careful not to cut too close. Bring kernels and cobs, milk, cream, and 1 c. sugar to a simmer; let steep for 20 minutes. Remove cobs and scrape with the back of a knife back into the cream. Pulse mixture in a blender. Strain back into pot. Whisk eggs and remaining sugar. Slowly temper warm cream mixture into egg mixture, continually whisking. Put all ingredients back in pot and slowly bring to a simmer, whisking frequently. Chill. Put in ice cream maker. TO ASSEMBLE Spread a spoonful of pastry cream in the center of a plate, place cornbread on top, and top with ice cream.

And don’t miss the advice and wine pairings from sommelier Eileen Warthen.

Potager
Restaurant & wine bar