You will likely see corn ribs all over Instagram this summer, posted by lively new pizzerias, The best Portland chefs, and well-known food influencers: a ball of corn cut lengthways in quarters, then fried or roasted to bring out the sweetness of the high season kernels. Think of them as the slender, divisible cousin of the hefty summer standby that is corn on the cob. Some cooks simply fry them, drizzle with sauce, and serve with a wedge of lime; others marinate and fry them. The idea is to eat them like spare ribs, but instead of sucking juicy meat from a bone, diners gnaw plump kernels from a rigid core.
Corn ribs went viral Tik Tok in February, but it was a remarkable rib of corn Momofuku Ssäm Bar Chef Max Ng, who most directly influenced the trend we’re now seeing in Portland, at least coined the term “corn ribs” (one Austin restaurant, Hai Hai Ramen, says it served corn this way since 2016 under a different name). The restaurant shared and caught the attention of NG’s version of Ng’s version of quartered and fried corn on the cob with squid aioli and whipped ricotta on Instagram in the summer of 2017 Restaurant critic and chefs across the country. Chef Kasey Mills of Sesame Collective, the restaurant group behind places like Shalom Y’all and Lil ‘Shalom, wrote this Instagram post as an inspiration to add corn ribs to their menu every summer since 2017.
Despite the status of corn ribs as a national phenomenon, their presence on Portland menus feels specific to a city known for being historically and even more sustainably committed to the past year, partly influenced by climate change, wildfires and heatwaves. But while the dish has been on menus in some form for four (or more) years, 2021 really is the year of the corn rib. In 2020, corn ribs were far less common on Portland menus when the city was closed and dining options were restricted to takeout or outdoor seating. For chefs in Portland, corn ribs became a way to share high-season produce that feels like what people can dine now when they see life after vaccination and the persistent threat from the Delta variant. Ultimately, this dish celebrates the fact that Portlanders can still dine out and chefs are still able to innovate in kitchens, even amid the sticky filth of the pandemic and the associated food and labor shortages.
Corn ribs are inherently meant to be shared: a corn rib is a cleaner, easier way to split a single cob of corn, a quick bite into a bigger, more interesting meal. At Canard, the focus has always been on smaller plates rather than traditional main courses; A single meal can include foie gras dumplings, roasted chicken, half-shell oysters, and pancakes baked in duck sausage sauce – plus a plate of summer corn. When Canard Sous Chef Patrick Ayers wanted to create a blueberry and corn dish, corn ribs were a natural choice. He knew he wanted a smoked component to show off the sweetness of the corn and, given the size of the in-house smoker, decided to smoke the blueberries instead of the kernels.
Canard’s accusation against corn ribs also nods in the name to the natural comparison: The smoked blueberries and the barbecue sauce play on the concept of a meatless grill rib. Portland has always been a productive city, with its numerous urban farms and a sizeable vegan scene, but in the past two years, Portland’s plant-centric dining world has begun to reinvent itself and appear in new and diverse ways. Vegan pop-ups like Mama Dut, Mirisata, and Plant-Based Pi have found permanent homes and rely on things like mushrooms and jackfruit instead of animal protein. But interest in high-fiber foods extends into the kitchens of those who sear a steak from time to time: some of the most exciting upcoming openings focus on more sustainable culinary practices, including vegetable-heavy dishes made with feed and Oregon-grown paired with whole animal butchery.
The country’s continued focus on health related to the pandemic has deterred some people from animal protein, and locally, the mounting crises related to global warming – Portland’s multiple heat waves, Oregon’s ongoing forest fires – have persuaded some Portlanders to theirs personal data to reduce carbon footprint of eat less meat. As a result, culinary circles have begun to focus on vegetable dishes, even in restaurants known for foods that rely on dairy or meat. At New Haven-informed Pizzeria Dimo’s izza, Chef Doug Miriello was aware that most people associate his restaurant with giant pizzas and meat-packed grinders and wanted customers to see his team’s focus and attention on the vegetables, that they serve. So he added “Italian Elotes” to the menu, a nod to the cuisine of his Mexican wife and parents-in-law while retaining his Italian flair. Miriello sources Brentwood corn from Dwelley Family Farms in Northern California, which he touts as one of the best corn he has ever tasted. He uses the standard Elotes recipe as a starting point, but uses Calabrian chilies instead of chipotle, feta and parmesan instead of queso fresco or cotija, and parsley and lemon instead of coriander and lime.
Corn ribs mirror the way chefs put their menus together during the pandemic: The labor shortage has left many kitchens understaffed. Nevertheless, the optimized preparation gives dishes that customers would not normally prepare at home. Langbaan’s culinary advisor, Jonathan Maristela, topped his fried corn ribs with Northern Thai spices and Sichuan peppercorns, then sprinkled them with chili jam enriched with coconut milk and fish sauce. The result is a salty, slightly spicy dish with a filling hint of sweet corn. For Maristela, corn ribs were a way to demonstrate technical skill and he was able to do much of the prep in the downtime before service.
Under Mills’ direction, the Sesame Collective restaurants serve an even more complicated version of the dish: the team poaches ribs of corn in milk and butter, then reduces the cooking liquid and whips it until it breaks. While serving, the corn is fried, tossed into the corn butter and poured with harissa and smoky Urfa pepper; The dish, developed by Yalla chef Dan Valley, was so successful that it is now available at Lil ‘Shalom, Shalom Y’all and Yalla.
With regularly disrupted supply chains and rising food prices, from a business point of view, low cost and ubiquity are part of the husk of corn ribs: corn is generally available in abundance in summer, at a lower price than old tomatoes, for example. According to Mills, vegetable dishes are lower-cost products that allow chefs to keep the more expensive dishes on their menus for a reasonable price, which is a particularly pressing concern in times of financial and social instability.
But Portland chefs who add corn ribs to their menus don’t just advertise food and drink as a cost-benefit assessment. Each of them felt a creative tendency towards a dish that is quirky at its core. “The world sucks in many ways right now,” says Ayers. “It takes more playful and fun dishes.”