Riding home on the Megabus from Pittsburgh this past Sunday, I overheard a girl ask her new bus acquaintance what the difference between whiskey and bourbon is. He replied, with shocking confidence, that bourbon is aged in oak barrels, and whiskey is not. That's as false as he was sure about it. Whiskey can be aged in oak barrels. Bourbon, by law, must be aged in new charred oak barrels, made from at least 51 percent corn, and produced in the United States. There are some other differences involving what proof the alcohol must be and what can be added to it and so on. But it's the high percentage of corn, as opposed to a mash of other grains, that gives bourbon its distinctive sweetness.
Strictly speaking, corn is harvested in the early fall or late summer; fresh corn isn't at its peak yet in terms of sheer corniness (heh) and sweetness. The farmers market doesn't have it this early, of course, so I picked up a few ears from Fairway. Instead of cooking a kid in its mother's milk, I decided to cook corn in its progeny's milk, so to speak, to enhance the corn flavor and inject the sweetness that the corn lacks this early in the season.
My initial concept of the dish was confused. I couldn't decide if the flavors should be Southern, Turkish, Mexican. I bought and prepped a few more ingredients than I used, and used a couple things I shouldn't have. The recipe below is the ideal version, not the one actually marinating in my gastric juices*. A few points:
1. It's important not to overbrown the butter. Most pastry recipes that require browned butter direct you to cook it to "nut brown" or "deep brown," but since you'll be cooking a number of things in this, you don't want to risk burning the solids.
2. I know, I know, mint and paprika sounds like an odd combination. It's used frequently in Turkish and Syrian food, and it's fantastic. Open mind, please.
3. The one ingredient I wasn't sure whether to omit or not was kale. I chiffonaded about a cup of it and cooked the stems in the brown butter, then just stirred the kale in at the end. It made up for some of the earthy herbal flavors that, again, early corn kind of lacks, but on the other hand, maybe it just muddled the rest of the flavors. It's omitted in the recipe below.
Bourbon brown butter corn salad
4 ears corn
1.5 tablespoons butter
a little under 1 oz bourbon (I used half a nip of Jack Daniels, but didn't have anything volumetrically small enough to give it to you in mLs)
2 shallots, or 1 very small red onion
1/3 c chopped fresh mint
1/2 c toasted walnut halveslime juice to taste
paprika, cayenne, salt, and pepper to taste
Brown the butter in a deep pan as directed above. Add the bourbon all at once and whisk vigorously until it stops sizzling. Fry the shallots/onion in this mixture until they're just short of burnt or, alternately, broil them until they're crispy and charred on top. Add the corn and stir to coat with the bourbon-butter sauce. Continue stirring over medium-high heat until it's just cooked. Remove from heat and add the mint, paprika, cayenne, salt, and pepper. Serve warm, adding lime juice and toasted walnuts just before serving.
*It has been pointed out to me that perhaps not everyone wants to think about the aftermath of eating in those terms...