food fest 5: some kernels about corn

TODAY WE HONOR YAM KAAX, THE MAYAN GOD OF CORN, AND HIS AZTEC COUNTERPART, CINTEOTL. We celebrate the high-summer harvest of one of our favorite, and most important, crops. Welcome to Food Fest 5, a collaboration with my dear friend Deb and the Dinner Tonight blog. Come dig in and learn some kernels about corn, have a portion of Southern Corn Pudding, perhaps, and be sure to leave behind some recipes or tips of your own while you’re here.

It Ain’t What It Used to Be
Though corn is rightly labeled native to the Americas, the original plant from which today’s corn derives, called Teosinte (technically in the genus Zea), had a long and winding journey from its roots in Southern Mexico.  Talk about the domestication of a wild thing!

The original grass had far fewer, tiny kernels, and not in anything so orderly an arrangement as today’s tightly packed heads that we call ears of corn. Have a look at these images (especially the macro ones) to see how heroic a job has been accomplished.

Starting more than 7,000 years ago, careful cultivation and selection by native peoples of the Americas and much more recently by farmers in wider reaches have yielded corn for feed, flour, (must I say fuel, too? eek!), and also our so-called “sweet corn,” the most domesticated creature of all. Fewer, bigger ears were a goal, as was reducing the hardness of the shells. Eventually so was developing a plant that could produce where it was not hardy. Today corn is the biggest U.S. crop, but what’s being grown is all those hybrids, not open-pollinated or heirloom varieties with all their genetic history and charm.

Pigs Prefer Heirlooms (So Do Smart People)
So which kind of corn can a modern gardener rely on?

According to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange of Mineral, Virginia, pigs know a good thing when they smell it. So do chickens and horses and cows:

“It is a fact that when pigs, chickens, horses, and cows are given a choice between open-pollinated and hybrid corn,” the SESE catalog states, “the animals invariably prefer the old open-pollinated varieties, possibly because of the higher protein content.”

Their wonderful catalog offers many OP varieties, and several hybrid sweet types as well.

I count 96 varieties of corn listed in Glenn and Linda Drowns’ Sand Hill Preservation Center catalog of Calamus, Iowa, among my very favorite sources for vegetable seed. Glenn, a science teacher, has a passion for some other crops of the Americas, most notably sweet potatoes and squash, and also raises heirloom poultry, and in all these cases his collection is ever-so-colorful. Not all varieties are available in any given year, but I am happy just to read about them, frankly, and know that they are all safe in his able and devoted hands.

To Freeze, or Not to Freeze?
I planned to freeze corn this year from the local farmstand, and then I read the directions, about big pots of boiling and ice water, about blanching and cooling and cutting and…

Oh, my.  I am exhausted before I begin.

Maybe I will do it the way that suited Ellen Nearing of the various “Living the Good Life” volumes, books I have read over and again the last 25 years.

“Corn need not be blanched for freezing,” she writes in her cookbook  “Simple Food for the Good Life.” Phew!  “Remove the husks and put directly into freezing bags, without any water or washing. To be eaten, put cobs in a shallow baking dish, spread with butter and bake in a hot oven for 15 to 20 minutes.”

Corn for What? For Parching!

I didn’t know there is a whole world of corn that’s ideal for dry-roasting and eating that way, called parching corn. Well, at least I didn’t know about it until I read this story in Mother Earth News.  Fascinating.

Southern Corn Pudding
Or maybe I will do absolutely nothing except get good and fat, turning some of the current local crop of corn into puddings and eating every spoonful myself.

Years ago, I used to spend the holidays with transplanted Southern friends, replete with Smithfield hams and (heaven-on-earth) corn pudding.  Naughty as it may be, it’s my favorite corn recipe other than really good cornbread (which I like with kernels in, and cooked to a crackling crispy crustiness in a well-oiled black cast-iron skillet in the oven…but more on that another time).

I don’t have my old friend’s recipe, and she has long ago moved to France and operates a world-class cooking school…where they probably don’t teach corn pudding. But a lovely must-have little cookbook by “Fannie Farmer Cookbook” author Marion Cunningham called “Lost Recipes” has one simply titled:

Southern Corn Pudding

2 cups fresh corn kernels (about 4 ears)
2 cups milk, heated
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons butter, melted
½ tsp salt
1/8 tsp. black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter a 1½-quart casserole.
Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Pour into casserole, and put casserole in a pan. Add enough hot water to reach halfway up the casserole sides. Bake until firm (about 45 minutes).

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HOW THIS CROSS-BLOG FOOD FEST WORKS:

Now it’s your turn: Have a recipe or tip to share in the comments below? Then be sure to go visit Deb and the Dinner Tonight folks and do the same. The cross-blog event idea works best when you leave your recipe or tip and favorite links (whether to your own blog or another’s) at both host blogs, mine and Deb’s. Thanks for attending our fifth weekly Food Fest…see you next Thursday for our anything-goes Cornucopia of fresh vegetable ideas, just in time for the Labor Day weekend.

40 comments
August 20, 2008

comments

  1. says

    Welcome, Dayna. Pollination issues? Did you plant enough double rows in a block big enough to insure good pollination? There are various suggested layouts for planting corn, but it always adds up to enough plants to cross-pollinate. I am curious. I am glad it was fun,and think gardening is often this way…you have to try, try, try. Do come back soon.

    Corn growers: Do you have any suggestions on growing corn to share with us?

  2. says

    Thanks so much Margaret, for the advice.
    With a small space I was limited to two rows in two areas of my garden.
    I will certainly be doing more research in the suggested layouts, since thankfully, I’m a stubborn gardener. I will be trying again.

  3. says

    @Dayna: I think that Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (link in story above) had some good details, as I recall. Worth a read…especially re: the open-pollinated types.

  4. gardenden says

    Back in the late middle ages, when we all sat at the kitchen table for dinner, every now and again there would be a seasonal festival at out house. Corn was special..being Florida, it was from Zellwood, and we all made a meal of it! Ears and ears of corn…Would you like salt on that one? Sugar on the next? How many could the little brother eat in typewriter/Looney Tunes fashion? Much laughter, good company, and the excitement of an out of the routine supper.
    You should have seen us when strawberries were in season! Or the bushel of oysters, or when Dad got to frying eggplant…
    Who needs a balanced meal 365? Celebrate what is at its peak.

  5. says

    @Gardenden: Hahahahaha. I grew up in the Middle Ages, or earlier.

    @All: Our friend Dan Shaw has a corn story that will interest all in my nearby areas (Litchfield Hills/Berkshires/Hudson Valley) on his great blog today.

  6. Melanie says

    Shaker Corn Pudding

    Blend together:

    3T butter-softened
    2T sugar
    2T flour
    1t salt

    Add 3 eggs- beaten

    Stir in:

    2 cups corn
    1 3/4 c milk

    pour into a buttered 10×6 casserole

    bake 325 for 45 minutes-stirring once

  7. says

    Welcome, Melanie, and thank you for the corn pudding. I think I will like it even better than the “Lost Recipes” one because it is a little sweeter and egg-ier. Hope you visit again soon.

  8. Melanie says

    I think I got this recipe from Marsha Adams

    Corn Fritters

    Mix together:

    4 eggs..beaten
    4 T flour
    1/4 C heavy cream

    Add:
    4 C corn…fresh is best
    mix until well coated

    Melt 3 T butter in cast iron skillet…drop batter by large tablespoons. cook for a few minutes on each side until golden.
    If you like drizzle with syrup.

  9. diana says

    @melanie,

    Can I use skim milk for this recipe? I just got home from the farmers market with a dozen ears of corn and this sounds yummy!

  10. says

    Welcome, Karen. Bush zucchini have taken over the market for space reasons, since most backyard gardeners cannot let vining types run. For the best selection of older varieties that may include vining ones, try Baker Creek catalog, or Sand Hill Preservation. Have a look.

  11. Karen says

    I am looking for the seed for zucchini. This zucchini is NOT bush. It is the type that has runners. So far no one knows what I’m talking about. I’m guessing it’s an heirloom type. Hope you can help.

  12. sherrill says

    why is my corn tough?I cooked it for the ten minutes I have always done,I grew it myself.Was wondering if it was not watered enough as it has been a dry summer but nothing in the garden looked like it was stressed from lack of water.

    • says

      Welcome, Sherrill. To be its most tender, corn has just a few days of peak readiness…so if you pick too late that can affect the thickness of the outer covering of each kernel and add to toughness. The time to pick is right as the silk turns fully dark and withers; a few days too late and the quality declines. Early morning or evening pickingis best, when temperatures are relatively cool.

      The top kernels will be juicy and fully formed, and the liquid in them will neither be sticky or thick, nor watering…but more like milk. Peak moment is usually about three weeks after the plants tassel.

      Some people also advise putting fresh ears into a pot of water that’s at a rolling boil for just 4 or 5 minutes, as an alternative to longer cooking; there are so many opinions on that, who knows? And yes, the plants must be watered well during kernel formation in particular, never allowed to stress or wilt.

  13. Rae says

    Good ideas for corn here, even freezing without blanching. I was intrigued, though, by the Bennington pitcher. I did not know they made anything so elaborate. I really loved seeing it, since what I have from Bennington is very simple.

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