August 29, 2005
Matyson, Corn, and Sweet Corn Panna Cotta

A few weeks ago, Carl's sister Marya was in town, and the three of us went for dinner to Matyson, one of the best BYOs west of Broad St. In addition to their regular menu, Matyson also offers seasonal $40 tasting menus. That week's tasting menu featured corn in five guises - lobster corn chowder, cornmeal crusted soft shell crabs with corn relish, sautéed scallops with truffle-spiked creamy corn, rack of lamb with polenta, and corn and black pepper ice cream. Everything was absolutely delicious, but the standout of the savory dishes was the scallops with truffled creamy corn.

I believe that people can generally be divided into those who are fanatical about truffles and those who are not. I am not a truffle fanatic. Despite (or perhaps as a result of) having had copius amounts of the real stuff while living in Italy, I have always been dismally disappointed by my experiences with truffle "flavor" in American restaurants. In Italy, truffles are all about subtlety and gentle aromatic muskiness. In America, in contrast, chefs tend to bludgeon you with the intense one-dimensionality of truffle oil. Matyson's creamy truffled corn fell squarely on the Continential side of this conflict, with wonderful results. After tasting the dish, I paused, looked up at Carl, and reported, "I like truffles." This was a massive revelation for me.

The second dish at Matyson that wowed me was the corn and black pepper ice cream. I have long considered corn a reputable dessert ingredient, ever since my first childhood taste of Boston Indian Pudding at Noho Star. Recently, I'd been thinking of making some sort of a corn-based dessert involving caramel, playing off the idea of caramel popcorn. A corn flan would be the obvious choice, but this heat makes me reluctant to turn on the oven. So instead, I prepared a sweet corn panna cotta, using my standard panna cotta recipe, but steeping the corn in the cream and milk for about 20 minutes. While I didn't incorporate any caramel, I decided to use brown sugar instead of plain sugar in the panna cotta base, which added a bit of a caramel flavor. I can't say my finished product was as good as Matyson's ice cream, but it satisfied both my sweet tooth and my creative instincts. The corn flavor was mild but distinct -- an unsuspecting eater would probably recognize that the panna cotta was not "plain vanilla," so to speak, but might not be able to put his finger on the secret ingredient. You can try for yourself; my adapted recipe is below.

Sweet Corn Panna Cotta

In a small bowl, sprinkle 1 envelope (a little less than 1 Tb.) powdered gelatin over 2 Tbs. of cold water. Let gelatin soften for 1-2 minutes, then heat (in a small saucepan over low heat, or in the microwave) until the gelatin dissolves.

With a large chef's knife, slice the kernels off of 3 ears of corn. With the back of the knife, scrape the ears to remove all the corn milk and meat. It's best to do this in a large bowl, or on a flexible cutting board. Discard the cobs.

In a large saucepan, bring 2 cups of heavy cream and 1 cup of half-and-half to a simmer (those of us with no half-and-half in the house use 2 1/2 cups heavy cream and 1/2 cup of milk) over low heat. Add the corn kernels and corn milk, as well as half a vanilla bean (scrape out the seeds, and toss both the seeds and bean into the cream mixture). Let simmer for 15-20 minutes. During this time, use a potato masher or even a wooden spoon to break up the corn as much as you can. After the corn has simmered, add 1/3 cup of sugar (brown or white) and stir to dissolve. Strain the mixture through a fine seive and into a large Pyrex measuring cup, and toss the corn remnants. Whisk the gelatin mixture you prepared earlier into the cream mixture until it's well combined.

Pour your panna cotta mixture into 6-8 ramekins, and place them in the refrigerator, covered, until they have set completely, at least 4 hours. To serve, run a paring knife around the edge of the ramekin, letting some air creep under the bottom of the panna cotta. Invert onto a plate, and garnish. [Note: Carl suggests sprinkling a few corn kernels into the bottom of the ramekin before pouring in the cream - that way, when you invert the panna cotta onto a plate, the corn creates an instant garnish, as well as an identifying mark.]