There are so many cornfields in Illinois that it’s easy to take this vegetable for granted. But these Chicago chefs are teaching us to savor every bite of summer corn by celebrating the humble ingredient at the height of its sweetness.
“Corn is a quintessential summer ingredient from the color to the flavor,” chef Michael Lachowicz says. At Best of 2019 winner George Trois, he serves a two-bite ode to corn at the beginning of his 12-course summer tasting menu ($205). Summer sweet corn pudding with chilled carrot ginger soup is topped with crispy fried croutons and a borage blossom, which tastes faintly of cucumber. “When the spoon breaks into the custard, you see the separation of the chilled soup on top and the corn on the bottom. It’s a visually stunning dish with bright, sweet flavors of summertime.”
Sweet corn fritters ($9.50) at Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook are loaded with juicy corn kernels and purée, served with housemade honey butter for dipping. “It’s the scrapings from the husk after you cut the corn kernels away that is like corn pudding that we fold into the butter that really makes the butter so tempting,” says chef Sarah Stegner. She begins serving this summer favorite the moment she can get her hands on sweet corn from Tracey Vowell at Three Sisters Garden and says there’s always “rather hostile backlash” when she takes the fritters off the menu once the season concludes. “The truth is they would not taste the same without Tracey’s fresh delicious corn,” Stegner muses. “Some things are meant to stay seasonal. The anticipation of knowing it’s coming and savoring the moments that last only a few weeks each year make it worth the wait.”
The sweet and savory elote cakes ($14) at this new River North restaurant are a combination of elotes and arepas, two of chef and partner Jonathan Meyer’s favorite street foods. “In addition to my personal travels through Mexico and Colombia, I pulled inspiration and insight from my good friend Diego’s family in Cartagena for the arepa elements, as well as my line cook Jesus, who assisted with the final touches on the elote,” he explains. Fried blue and yellow corn cakes are topped with creamy elote salad with cotija, citrus, and spicy honey.
The most popular summer side dish at this River North seafood restaurant is the roasted corn elote ($6) with brown butter and Calabrian chilies. Chef de cuisine Christo Vlahos recommends pairing the buttery sweet corn with his twist on fish and chips — pan-seared Atlantic halibut shingled with potato rounds served with a cipollini onion filled with tartar sauce. “I would serve this with a crisp white wine such as an Assyrtiko,” Vlahos says.
Chef Devon Quinn goes to Green City Market (a Best of 2019 winner!) every Wednesday and Saturday morning to select the best produce to use at Eden, along with produce from their greenhouse. In summer, the burrata ($14) is served with sweet corn, peppers, stone fruit, pecans, herbs, and grilled focaccia. “Corn is just coming into season, so we wanted to incorporate it in the menu and thought it acted as a perfect pair with the creaminess of the burrata,” Quinn says.
The summer tasting menu ($165) at one of Chicago’s finest French restaurants ends on a sweet note with a dessert that showcases summer sweet corn in several variations. A sweet corn gateau brûlée custard of Hollywood Farm Corn is enhanced by corn jus, caramel kettle corn, and crispy silk husk. “Corn is one of my favorite summer vegetables,” chef Jean Joho says. “I wanted to use it in a dish as many ways as possible.”
At Rogers Park newcomer Onward, executive chef Patrick Russ incorporates sweet corn into a sweet and spicy tempura soft-shell crab dish ($16). The crab is coated in a seasoning of freeze dried corn, garlic powder, and gochujang, atop tatsoi dressed in a gochujang-based vinaigrette, turnips, and a sweet corn pudding. “I’m from Indiana, so I jump at the opportunity to use corn wherever I can when it comes into season,” Russ says. “My dad would always use the saying ‘knee-high by Fourth of July,’ and that’s how you knew it would be a good year for corn. Now it just comes naturally to me to associate corn with the summer.”
Executive chef Katsuji Tanabe takes esquites, a popular Mexican street food, and reinvents it in croquette form at River North’s Barrio. For his sweet corn croquettes ($14), Tanabe mixes a batter of charred sweet corn with Oaxaca cheese and bread crumbs, then fries them to a crispy golden finish. The shareable starter is finished with garlic crema, Serrano sauce, and freshly grated cotija cheese.
This recently-opened downtown Park Ridge restaurant is serving sweet corn with shishito peppers ($11) in a healthy starter that you won’t be able to stop eating. The bright summer vegetables are seasoned with parmesan butter, lime, and paprika. Executive chef Jose Alvarez thinks the surprising spiciness you find with one in 10 shishito peppers pairs especially well with sweet corn.
“I love pairing corn and lobster together in the summer months,” says Formento’s chef Todd Stein. “The sweetness in both of these ingredients makes for a decadent dish.” His risotto ($20) with sweet corn, lobster, and chives is made with corn from Nichols Farm & Orchard. To make it, he takes a whole corn cob and folds it into the cream with onion and garlic to make the base of the risotto. “It is reminiscent of sweet creamed corn, with an ode to the Italian way!”
Amber Gibson spends 340 nights a year in hotels searching for the latest and greatest in the travel industry. Her writing and photographs have appeared in print, online, and on the radio for outlets including Four Seasons Magazine, NPR, Saveur, Departures, Rhapsody, Hemispheres, American Way, Private Air, Wine Folly, Plate, Chicago Magazine, Tasting Table, and Serious Eats. She graduated as valedictorian from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and received a fellowship to attend the 2017 Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood Napa Valley. Champagne, dark chocolate, and gelato are her biggest weaknesses. She also admires and supports CAASE in Chicago. Follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.