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Take comfort in classic scalloped corn dish

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Old-fashioned scalloped corn is a homey, bubbling, creamy casserole — and is a quintessentially American comfort food.

I haven’t had nearly my fill of corn on the cob this year: plain, boiled and buttered; roasted in the husk and drizzled with olive oil; or grilled over coals and rubbed with something spicy. There is something wonderful about its simplicity. Fetchingly wrapped in a bright green husk, a fresh ear of corn is as beautiful as it is ready to cook.

We grasp it, steaming, in our hands as we nibble at the kernels, as we savor its sweet flavor, as the cob is quickly denuded.

Still, it’s best not to fall into a rut: There are many other wonderful ways to cook corn. The other day, I found myself suddenly craving not corn on the cob, but rather old-fashioned scalloped corn.

A quintessentially American comfort food, it’s a homey, bubbling, creamy casserole, crowned with toasted, buttery cracker crumbs.

I vividly recall the scalloped corn that I was served for dinner, many years ago, on a small farm in western Washington, made with freshly picked corn and rich cream.

Baked ham and hot biscuits were also served, but scalloped corn was clearly the star.

A BIT OF BACKGROUND

Any number of foods can be “scalloped” — corn, potatoes, oysters, clams, onions, tomatoes. The term usually refers to something baked in cream, sometimes with cheese, similar to a French gratin. Cooks differ over whether to use heavy cream, condensed milk or white sauce (bechamel), but nearly all agree that buttered cracker crumbs or breadcrumbs are essential for the topping.

Well loved throughout the United States, scalloped corn is often attributed first to New England. The seasoning tends to be fairly restrained: just salt and pepper. For a more flavorful version, an old edition of “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook” suggests adding a few drops each of Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces, and chopped green pepper. Some recipes call for diced ham.

I’m all for increasing the flavor quotient if so inclined. The basic recipe leaves plenty of room for innovation.

I once admired a scalloped corn casserole at a potluck and asked for the recipe. It was easy to remember: one large can of cooked corn kernels and one large can of creamed corn, mixed with an egg and some grated cheese. It was excellent.

My scalloped corn relies on diced red bell pepper for color and sweetness, but a little crushed hot red pepper or chopped fresh Fresno chili would not be amiss. Scallions or chives could figure in.

A Southwestern variation might include roasted green chilies and queso fresco.

Any number of foods can be “scalloped” — corn, potatoes, oysters, clams, onions, tomatoes. The term usually refers to something baked in cream, sometimes with cheese, similar to a French gratin.

Cooks differ over whether to use heavy cream, condensed milk or white sauce (bechamel), but nearly all agree that buttered cracker crumbs or breadcrumbs are essential for the topping.

OLD-FASHIONED SCALLOPED CORN

  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
  • 1 small onion, diced (about 1 cup)
  • 1 small red bell pepper, diced (about 1 cup)
  • Kernels from 6 ears fresh corn (about 3 cups)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/2 cup crushed oyster or soda crackers
  • >> White sauce
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups milk or half-and-half
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Pinch cayenne

Heat oven to 375 degrees and position a rack in the middle. Use 1 tablespoon butter to grease a 9-inch square or round baking dish.

To make sauce: Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in flour and cook mixture for about 1 minute, until sizzling but not browned.

Add milk 1/2 cup at a time, whisking well to keep prevent lumps as sauce thickens. Raise heat and bring sauce to a simmer, then turn heat to low and cook, whisking occasionally, for 5 minutes.

Season with salt, pepper and cayenne. Taste and adjust seasonings; set aside.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and bell pepper; cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add corn, season with salt and pepper; cook 2 minutes more, until corn is heated through. Turn off heat.

Add white sauce and combine well. Add beaten egg and stir well. Transfer mixture to prepared baking dish and smooth the top. Sprinkle with cracker crumbs and dot surface with 2 tablespoons butter, cut in small pieces. Bake on middle rack for 30 minutes or until bubbling and browned. Serve piping hot. Serves 6.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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