It looks like a scale model of a medieval torture device. But when the good corn comes in at the farmers markets, it's time to dig into the back of the cabinet and pull it out, all evil and gleaming.
It's a corn stripper, and I actually have two, both gifts from my mother-in-law. One had a wooden trough and was attractive but not all that practical. The one I really use looks a little mean, with its shiny metal rack and the hole in the middle with a razor-sharp blade on one side and a stubby bar on the other.
I seriously love creamed corn. Not that nasty pasty stuff from the can. In the summers, my mother made terrific creamed corn, always fresh and corny. We went through whole black-iron skillets of it. When I picture a good summer supper, it's always on the table along with a platter of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers cut up with vinegar.
The tricks to good creamed corn are really good corn -- very fresh, with plump kernels -- and a corn stripper. The stripper skims across the top of the kernels, slicing off the tender part, while the metal bar below the hole scrapes across the cut kernels and extracts the milky juice. Getting plenty of that juice is important. The natural starch in it is what thickens the creamed corn.
My mother has told me about the darkest days of the Depression, when my grandmother had seven mouths to feed that included two growing teenage boys. Sometimes she was so short on provisions, she didn't have milk to make creamed corn and had to use water. But they always had big skillets of corn.
I think of that whenever I make a skilletful. I have the luxury of milk, added in several additions. I usually start with butter, although my mother almost certainly started with a dollop of bacon grease from the can on the back of the stove. I add salt and plenty of black pepper, and a splash of milk. Never sugar, though: That's the kind of thing my mother would have sniffed at. If the corn is worth cooking, it's sweet enough.
Then I cook it slowly, stirring often so it doesn't stick. As it thickens, I'll add a little more milk, sort of like making risotto. It can take 20 minutes or so until it's creamy and cooked through.
Then it's ready to dish up and put out on the table, with sliced tomatoes and something simple like chicken breasts or pork chops. Or maybe no meat at all, just a table full of great produce surrounding a skillet of corn.
I know plenty of good corn dishes -- succotashes and hashes and chowders. And just corn on the cob with chile powder and lime has its pleasures. But when the corn stripper comes down from the back of the cabinet, it's a sign: Summer is here.