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Recipe: A Sweet and Spicy Corn Salad

A modern, irresistible take on som tam

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I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and with a few exceptions, road trips were the only type of vacation my family ever went on. We’d start early in the morning with a stop at McDonald’s (egg McMuffins and hash browns for everyone) and then drive through miles and miles of cornfields. I always got headaches from carsickness, so I’d lean my forehead against a backseat window and watch the spiky stalks blur into a sea of green, hour after hour, until I fell asleep.

If we were on the way back from somewhere, and it was summer, we’d pick up a few bags of fresh, sweet corn from a farm stand. When we got back home, one of my parents would pour charcoal into the belly of the Weber, light it on fire, and when the fire died down my mom would toss the stalks onto the grill over the smoldering coals. My brother and I would peel the wrappers back from salted sticks of Land O’Lakes butter, readying them like wands to slick the hot corn with fresh fat. Inevitably we’d burn our mouths because we couldn’t wait.

Corn — along with watermelon, cherries, and peaches — means summer in the midwest. Here, food writer Leela Punyaratabandhu — who writes about Thai food in Chicago and Thailand — shares a recipe for a spicy summer corn salad from her new book, Bangkok: Recipes and Stories from the Heart, out now.

ส้มต ำข้าวโพด
Spicy corn salad
Som Tam Khao Phot

My mother was a corn fanatic who lived through the period in the 1970s when Bangkok-based Kasetsart University, the country’s premier agricultural college, first introduced Super Sweet corn to the city. She, along with all of Bangkok, quickly pushed aside the local corn, bland, sticky, and chewy, in favor of this new cultivar with sweet, tender, juicy kernels. Before then, the most common form of sweet corn consumed, at least in our family, was canned creamed corn, a once-popular ice cream topping that you can still experience at some old ice-cream parlors in the city.

When Mom was alive, the excellent corn of the Midwest was one of the things she looked forward to when she visited me in Chicago. We would drive to the farm areas outside the city, buy more corn than we could eat, and make this modern variety of som tam over and over and over.

Serves 3 to 4

4 ears corn, husks and silk removed
1 teaspoon salt
4 cups ice cubes
2 large cloves garlic
2 or 3 fresh bird eye’s chiles
1½ tablespoons dried shrimp
¼ cup unsalted roasted peanuts
3 ounces long beans or 16 green beans, trimmed and cut crosswise into 2-inch pieces
10 cherry tomatoes, halved lengthwise
½ cup peeled and grated carrot (optional)
1 tablespoon fish sauce, or as needed
1½ tablespoons fresh lime juice, or as needed
Grated palm sugar, for seasoning

Place the corn in a 4-quart saucepan, add water to cover barely, and stir in the salt. Bring to a boil over high heat. While the water is heating, put the ice cubes in a large bowl and add water to cover. The moment the water boils, cook the corn for 2 minutes, then immediately transfer it to the ice bath and let cool to room temperature. Drain well and pat dry with paper towels or a kitchen towel.

Stand an ear of corn on its stem end on a work surface and, using a sharp knife, cut from the top downward in a sawing motion, cutting as deeply into the kernels as possible, and rotating the ear a quarter turn after each cut. Transfer the kernels to a bowl. Repeat with the remaining ears.

In a mortar, grind the garlic to a paste. Add the chiles and smash them into small pieces. Add the dried shrimp and pound until they break up. Add 2 tablespoons of the peanuts and pound them into small pieces about the size of a match head. Add the beans and smash them until they split open, then do the same with the tomato halves. Transfer the contents of the mortar to the corn bowl and add the carrot.

Add the fish sauce, lime juice, and a pinch of sugar to the corn mixture and toss well. Taste and adjust the seasoning with fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar if needed. If your tomatoes and corn aren’t very sweet, more sugar will be in order. I like my corn salad equally salty, sweet, and sour, but you do what you like.

Plate the salad, sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons peanuts over the top, and then serve right away with rice or alone as a mid-meal snack.

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