For nearly 40 years, summer at Al Forno, a storied Italian restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, has been punctuated by a pasta dish that captures the creamy-sweet flavor of fresh New England corn.
Chef-owner Johanne Killeen first blanches ears of corn, then slices off the kernels. She mixes those with tomatoes, habanero and fresh cilantro, all of which is simply tossed with olive oil and hot pappardelle.
We loved the use of fresh corn in Killeen’s pasta recipe, but we wanted to amplify its sweet, summery flavor. To do that, we borrowed a Native American technique in which fresh corn kernels are grated rather than sliced off the cob—producing a creamy puree of mashed kernels and starchy corn “milk.” The Narragansett used it in a dish that became known as succotash. The Seneca blended the mixture into corn stew. And in the arid Southwest, the Zuni made a porridge from it with mashed squash and sunflower seeds.
We started our pasta by tossing halved grape tomatoes in salt, which draws out their moisture as they sit. Then we grated fresh corn on the large holes of a box grater—but we held on to the cobs. Instead of tossing them, we borrowed a trick from corn chowder to draw out any remaining flavor and starch from the cobs: boiling them in water to create a stock we could use to both enrich the sauce and flavor the pasta.
We sautéed the grated corn with shallots and a minced habanero until the shallots softened, then added a bit of the corn stock and reduced the mixture, concentrating its flavors.
Next, we cooked campanelle pasta, which has frilly curls that sauce easily clings to, in the corn stock. (In our testing, we liked campanelle best in this recipe, but if you can’t find it, look for other short, sauce-catching pasta shapes, such as penne rigate, fusilli or farfalle.)
To better prime the pasta for absorbing the sauce’s flavor, we slightly undercooked it, then added it to the pan to finish cooking in the sweet corn sauce. Off heat, we stirred in fresh basil, butter and the salted tomatoes, which added mild acidity.
Once assembled, the pasta married the corn’s creamy-sweet flavor with the seeded habanero’s fruity heat. The grated kernels lent body and richness to the sauce, and the basil provided a bright, herbal note that perfectly capped off this silky, summery pasta.