According to Southern Living magazine (who, after all, ought to know), “Nothing puts a smile on a Southerner’s face like deliciously crisp, golden corn fritters fresh out of the fryer”. And they are not alone: I suspect the sunny, yellow kernels provoke the same reaction from Thais scoffing tod man khao pod or Colombians tucking into a plate of regañonas; they certainly never fail to gladden my greedy heart.
Sweetcorn is one of those vegetables, such as peas, in which the sugars begin to turn to starch the moment they’re picked, which means it’s worth eating as much of the stuff as possible during its brief British season – grilled on the cob, creamed on toast, and in today’s delicious little fritters. That said, they’re pretty good made with the tinned variety, too.
In the UK, at least, fresh corn is something to be seized when it first appears in late summer, and enjoyed for only as long as the season lasts (imported corn is often dry and more starchy than sweet). Happily, it’s perfectly possible to make very decent fritters from the stuff in cans, too, though the texture, to my mind, is less satisfying, because the kernels are far softer. North Carolina-born food writer James Villas, and Tennessee-born Rufus Estes, one of the first African-Americans to publish a cookbook, Good Things to Eat, back in the early 20th century, are the only ones to recommend cooking the corn before use, and, though not mandatory, I think this is a good idea; it seems to make the corn juicier, somehow. (Tinned corn is already cooked, so if you’re using that, skip this step.)
Most recipes fold the whole kernels into a batter, but chef Anne Rosenzweig, formerly of New York’s much loved 1980s institution Arcadia, purees it instead, giving her blini-like fritters a gorgeous sweetness and a creaminess that not even Villas, whose recipe in The Glory of Southern Cooking includes half and half (a 50:50 mixture of cream and milk that has a fat content approximating to what we in the UK call single cream) can match. It tastes even better when, as in Cook’s Illustrated magazine, you first brown that puree in a frying pan, which “drove off excess moisture and deepened the flavour even more”. I love the texture of the whole kernels, however, particularly when used in quantity, as in Villas’ version, in which the kernels are barely held together by batter, so I’ll be using both here.
Whatever you do with those kernels, you need to bind them with something or you’ll end up with crisp fried corn that, while very delicious, is not something you require my help to create. Most of the recipes I try involve a batter using wheat flour, often with a raising agent as well, but this seems a shame when cornmeal is so readily available. Without gluten, however, you’ll struggle to keep your cakes together in the pan, so, like Rosenzweig, I’m going to combine the two. She uses equal quantities of each, whereas I, like the late, great chef Edna Lewis and her collaborator on The Gift of Southern Cooking, Scott Peacock, will be using as little wheat flour as I can get away with without making the fritters hard to handle. Unlike Lewis and Peacock, however, I won’t be adding any raising agent for the simple reason that I find Villas and Rosenzweig’s non-raised versions so crisp and delicious that it feels unnecessary. Another top tip from Cook’s Illustrated: a little cornflour makes for a crisper texture. Turns out “its microscopic starch granules hydrate and swell into strand-like shapes in the batter and then swell up further when the batter hits the hot oil. As moisture evaporates during frying, the swollen starch granules lock into place, forming a brittle network with lots of holes. The upshot? Lacier, crispier fritters.” Sold.
Everyone uses eggs – an extra yolk in Rosenzweig’s rich restaurant recipe, whipped egg whites for extra lift in chef Brad McDonald’s take in his book Deep South: New Southern Cooking, and in Lewis and Peacock’s, too, though I’m going to keep mine simpler. I do love the tang of their buttermilk, though, which has a more interesting flavour than the usual milk, or water in Bill Granger’s case, or even Villa’s rather decadent cream. But if you can’t get hold of any, use thinned-down natural yoghurt, plain kefir or indeed just milk.
With good fresh corn, you don’t really need much else except a pinch of salt to bring out its sweetness, but if you’re serving these as the main event, rather than a side dish, you may be interested in gilding the lily. Options I try include, from the onion family, chives (Rosenzweig), grated onion (Lewis and Peacock) and, my favourite for their fresh flavour, Granger’s spring onions. I also try green pepper (Villas), and fresh coriander (Granger), but, honestly, if it goes with corn and it’s not too wet (deseed tomatoes, squeeze out grated courgette, for example), you can fold it in here, whether that’s chopped ham or crumbled feta. I’ve gone for a mild green chilli. You can add dried spices, too, as Granger does – he opts for ground coriander, cumin and paprika, but the fritter is your oyster (though I’m not sure how some of those would work as an ingredient here, to be honest).
Lewis and Peacock’s recipe, as well as the one from Southern Living, which credits it to a reader called Lynne Weeks from Georgia, are for deep-fried corn cakes, and are more like what I’d consider a hush puppy, though Lewis and Peacock, who are very much the experts here, make the distinction that hush puppies do not contain whisked egg whites. (Sam and Shauna, formerly of the award-winning Hang Fire Southern Kitchen and authors of a book of the same name, explain that hush puppies tend to be smaller and denser, and do not contain fresh corn – though McDonald’s do, so it’s clearly not a hard-and-fast rule.)
Either way, much as I enjoy both their plump little cakes, and the more doughnutty ones from Southern Living, flavoured with sugar and salt, I prefer the fresher, corn-heavy, pan-fried varieties, because the caramelisation that occurs when sweetcorn comes into contact with a hot pan is a magic not easily sacrificed. (If you’re looking for something deep-fried, let me point you in the direction of Lewis and Peacock’s recipe.)
Serve with creme fraiche and caviar if you’re Rosenzweig, with refried beans and avocado salad if you’re Granger, or with fried chicken and red beans and rice if you tend towards a Southern Living persuasion. Basically, corn fritters go with most things, including a cold beer.
Perfect corn fritters
Prep 20 min
Cook 10 min
Makes About 10, and easily doubled
2 corn cobs, to get 250g kernels(or 250g tinned and drained corn)
5 tbsp fine or medium cornmeal
1 tbsp flour
1 tbsp cornflour
4 spring onions, trimmed and finely sliced
1 mild green chilli, finely chopped, or a pinch of chilli flakes (optional)
Neutral oil, for frying
If you’re using fresh corn on the cob, strip away the husks, if necessary, drop the cobs into a pan of boiling, lightly salted water for a minute, then drain.
Put the cornmeal, flour, cornflour and a good pinch of salt in a large bowl and whisk to combine.
Beat the eggs and buttermilk, then stir into the dry ingredients.
Stand each blanched corn cob blunt end down on a chopping board and run a knife down its length to strip off the kernels.
Whizz 50g of them (or of tinned kernels) into a puree with a stick or mini blender.
Heat a splash of oil in a small frying pan over a medium heat, toast the puree, stirring, until thickened and lightly browned …
… then add to the batter with the remaining whole kernels and the onion and chilli, if using.
Stir until all the vegetables are coated with batter, then put enough oil into a frying pan to just cover the base.
Put on a medium-high heat and, once hot enough that a piece of corn sizzles, drop rounded spoonfuls of the mixture into the pan and flatten very slightly.
Make sure to leave enough room between them that you can flip them easily – you’ll probably need to cook them in two or more batches.
Turn down the heat slightly and fry until golden brown on the underside and beginning to dry out on top, then very carefully turn over and cook on the other side.
Drain on a wire rack or on kitchen paper, and serve hot.