Manny Vega knows how to keep the sweet in sweet corn.
He leaves the husk on each ear and wraps it in foil before placing it on a gas grill.
"When you heat up the husk, that sugar goes into the corn," Vega said Sunday at his booth at the Vintage Faire Mall farmers market.
The booth, Maize, offers several variations on a food that many think is the very essence of summer. And the middle of August is just about as good as it gets.
"I would rather have corn on the cob than a steak," Vega said.
He launched the business in May with his wife, Anet Reclusado, following a career in the wrought iron business, building fences and other things. They do farmers markets in Oakdale on Thursdays and Turlock on Fridays along with the Modesto mall on Sundays. They also cater.
You can get a simple roasted ear of corn, dripping in butter. You can try the corn bowl, made with whole kernels, sour cream, parmesan cheese and Vega's homemade salsa. He stuffs a poblano pepper with corn, salsa, sour cream and cheese.
The corn casserole has fresh and creamed corn, cheese, sour cream and butter.
"It's kind of like corn bread, but it's moist," said Paulette Roberson of Escalon after sampling the casserole.
The corn comes mostly from the Brentwood area of Contra Costa County, a major producer. Stanislaus and Merced counties are small players in the sweet corn business, though they do grow large amounts of feed corn for dairy cattle. San Joaquin County produces both kinds in abundance.
The booth also sells tamales made by Reclusado with masa from distantly grown grain corn, the kind that goes into corn flakes, tortillas and many other products. The non-local angle doesn't matter. The tamales often sell out.
Fresh corn consumption is rising, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The average American ate 9.2 pounds in 2010, compared with 6.7 pounds in 1990. Canned corn was at 6.8 pounds in 2010, frozen at 8.5.
Corn was a mainstay for Vega in his hometown in Michoacan, Mexico, and he honed his skills with culinary classes in San Francisco. He had talked for about 20 years about setting up a booth and finally took the plunge.
"This is my passion," he said. "I always liked to cook, and I enjoy talking to people. The farmers market is the place for me."
Market patron Martha Anaya has her own memories of this simple food while growing up in Modesto.
"We were raised eating corn all the time," she said. "My dad grew corn and we would always eat it with dinner."
Rho Freeman Glovsky of Ceres was sold on the stuff, too.
"It's good for you," she said before biting into a roasted ear that Vega handed to her. "It's crunchy. I like the texture ... I need some more butter, Señor."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2385.
COME AND GET IT
The Maize corn booth is at:
Vintage Faire Mall farmers market, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 20 in the Village at Vintage Faire portion of the Dale Road shopping center
Oakdale Certified Farmers Market, 5 to 8 p.m. Thursdays through August at Third Avenue and E Street
Turlock Certified Farmers Market, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays through October at Main Street and Broadway, plus 5 to 8 p.m. Sept. 6 and Oct. 25
HOW TO COOK IT
Readers of the Modesto Bee and modbee.com offered ideas on how best to cook sweet corn:
"Bring water to full boil. Place ears in and cook for three minutes only. This keeps the sugars from turning fully to starch, giving you tender, moist kernels."
Jim Tannahill, Turlock
"As soon as you bring it home, or better yet, pick it out of your garden, put it in the freezer WITHOUT SHUCKING IT. Don't wrap it in anything. The husks will prevent freezer burn and you can enjoy FRESH corn for months. When ready to cook, soak it in cool water for a minute to ease the shucking, and pop the shucked ears in a large pot of already boiling water for seven minutes. We've enjoyed corn this way for years."
Bob Schmitz, Oakdale
"We enjoy it with Sciabica's olive oil (either basil or jalepeno) and some sea salt and fresh ground pepper. No butter needed at all. I like extra heat, so I sprinkle some red pepper flakes on mine."
- Pam Clemensen, Modesto
"My Portuguese mother-in-law taught me the 'only' way to cook corn. Just put the whole ears of corn into a pot, cover with water, bring to a boil. Then put the lid on the pot, turn off the heat. That's it! Pretty simple. Also, she taught me to husk the corn as soon as we got it, put in a ZipLoc bag and into the refrigerator. It stays fresh for over a week. The only enhancements a fresh ear of corn needs is some butter and salt, although family purists say salt only. Although I have several buttering tools, my favorite is to keep one 'funky butter' in the summer in which an ear can be rolled to butter evenly."
Jane Braga, Sonora
"When I'm making a meal just for myself, I will clean the corn and place it inside of a coffee mug, with about two inches of water in the mug. I microwave it for five minutes, then salt and butter it. It's quick, easy and delish!"
Kellie Tubbs, Turlock
"You need to buy corn that is still completely unshucked (if that's a word!). You put the ear into the microwave, looking like you just picked it off the stalk, and you cook it on high for four minutes. Use hot pads to remove it from the microwave; let it cool for a few minutes. Then you cut off both ends, squeeze the green 'leaves,' and the cooked corn slips right out one end, usually with almost no silk attached. It tastes sweet, tender and delicious! You can also cook two ears at the same time for eight minutes, but I have found that I get better results doing just one at a time."
Nancy Haskett, Modesto
"First of all, you have to start with fresh, real sweet corn. This is pronounced 'yellow'! Fold back the husks enough to remove the silk, but do not remove the husks. Roll the husks back over the corn to wrap the end with the husks. Soak the corn submerged in water for at least 30 minutes. Start your charcoal grill, not gas grill, while you wait for the corn to soak. Cook over medium heat for approximately 30 minutes, turning occasionally to heat evenly."
Dave Habeck, Waterford