Corn: Sweet Versatility

Corn: Sweet Versatility

The day of fortune is like a harvest day. We must be busy when the corn is ripe.
Torquato Tasso

Given corn’s global prevalence, its etymology can be quite confusing. For example, in parts of Germany, korn means “rye,” where in Old English language, corn referred generally to the most prominent crop produced by a district.

In our case we are speaking of modern (sweet) corn, derived from the Spanish maize or mahiz, meaning “that which sustains us.” Known initially in the US as Indian corn (now renamed Zea mays), corn refers specifically to corn on the cob, so we’ll just go with that definition for our purposes. (We can’t make sense of all of it, either.)

Area of Origin
Mesoamerica, stretching south from the central part of Mexico to the northern part of Central America

Maize was flourishing in Central America around 8,000-5,000 BC before it made its way north, migrating along with the cultures that made it a dining staple. As a cultivated crop, corn had a large influence in transforming nomads into agrarian communities, which planted rows of the grain and tended the crop until it was time for harvest.

The ancient Mayans referred to themselves as “corn people” due to the vegetable’s leading role in their diet, and once it was established as a core crop in Mexico and the southwestern United States, corn found its way down into Peru. With the help of Christopher Columbus, the kernels made their debut in Europe and stretched eastward into Asia.

Given its adaptability to various climates, corn was able to firmly establish its place in worldwide cuisine, and has become an important part of sustenance in almost all cultures on the planet, including our own. In fact, if it weren’t for corn, the American settlers likely would have starved to death, so we owe the cob a little tip of the hat.

Grown on every continent except Antarctica, the corn crop has more than 3,500 uses. We, of course, prefer it in its edible form. Unfortunately, corn has become a fall guy in the modern food arena, largely due to its use (and overuse) in virtually every area of our lives, from high fructose corn syrup to glue. We’re going to leave that debate to the documentarians and activists, however, and focus on the food — real, unprocessed food.

In Peru, the site of our culinary adventure in autumn of ‘09, we reveled in discovering more than 55 varieties of corn in hues of white, purple, yellow, black and red. We had no idea artisan, organic corn could taste so good, and we eagerly tasted cobs of choclo with its giant kernels. Sold as a popular street food at train stations, markets and popular gathering places, choclo offers a childlike delight as you pluck the kernels from the cob and pop them into your mouth. They don’t even require butter — just a touch of salt. We also enjoyed sips of chicha morada, a popular fermented corn beverage, which was served as a sweet afternoon refreshment.

Our Approach
A much-maligned vegetable, we’d like to celebrate corn’s goodness as a sweet siren of summer and a delicious treat to be enjoyed, as with all things, in moderation. There are scads of ways to go about said enjoyment, but here are some of our favorites. You can see more ideas in the recipe list below, which includes everything from a corn cocktail to some gorgeous riffs on cornbread.

Tip: Corn’s sugars start to convert to starch soon after it is picked, so the closer you can purchase corn to the farm, the better.

Corn on the Cob
Corn in its simplest, freshest form is the essence of summer. To enjoy it grilled, soak the corn in its husk for 30 minutes before grilling to avoid charring the husks. Pull down the husks to expose the kernels and remove the silk. Season with salt and butter (we’re not giving up the butter, and be careful with olive oil on the grill, as it does inspire a big flame) along with whatever else inspires you, then pull the husks back up before grilling. We love to slather our cobs with butter and ancho chile purée for a hot smoky flavor, or a mixture of honey, butter and cayenne pepper for a salty/spicy combination. For grilled “sweet” corn, mix brown sugar or agave nectar into the honey. And don’t be afraid of caramelization; it adds such a smoky sweetness to the corn that you’ll be missing out. If you don’t have access to a grill, a 400 F oven works splendidly.

The American south loves its grits (and so do we folk here in the northeast!). Grits are a classic breakfast dish, but they can serve as a wonderful side companion to fish, roasted vegetables or steaks. Buttery grits are a fantastic accompaniment to roasted Brussels sprouts, which we do love simply roasted with bacon. Grits also provide the perfect creamy balance to shrimp and crab dishes.

Corn Salsa
As an alternative to tomatoes, use corn kernels to make a colorful salsa. Mix with black beans, cilantro, green and red peppers, rice wine vinegar, lime juice and oil. Here again, we love cutting grilled corn kernels right off the cob, which adds flavor to the salsa that would be missing with frozen or canned corn.

Corn Breads
We give you permission to slather your cornbread with butter until it glistens. Try mixing whole, grilled corn kernels into the cornbread batter, and add finely chopped smoked bacon or roasted jalapenos for an another layer of flavor. We have two other variations listed below under Recipes.

A popular Depression-era dish, succotash may evoke memories of Sylvester the cat, but we think it’s a great way to color your plate. A creative combination of corn and beans, succotash can serve as a wonderful partner for grilled fish. Try corn and edamame with ahi tuna. Or corn, lima beans, bacon, and red peppers as a bed for grilled halibut or sea bass.

Ice Cream
Sweet corn ice cream with caramel topping? Yes, please. Extract the “milk” from the cob with a grater and use in the ice cream custard base. Cold and creamy caramel corn sounds divine to us.

We love us some polenta here in the Gilded Fork test kitchen. A fantastic gluten-free side dish, grilled polenta topped with sauteed mushrooms, melted Manchego and truffle oil (or chopped rosemary) is a crowd favorite. Or top polenta slices with basil pesto, a thick slice of tomato and olive oil and indulge. If you prefer the loose package of grains, stir in some cream while cooking them, which makes a smooth, luscious base for short ribs or pork loin.

Soups & Salads
We also get excited about corn soups, including the chorizo-laden bowl of goodness in the recipe list below. And as a salad, nothing screams summer like a corn salad with peppers of all varieties, scallions and chopped chorizo.

Butter and popcorn. What else is there to be said? Naturally, we like to take it a step further, so truffle oil is our topping of choice. Yes, darlings, the aroma is mesmerizing. If you are not a truffle fan, try a topping of melted butter mixed with grated Parmesan and fresh herbs.

Fields of Gold Cocktail
Lobster Arepas
Chipotle Corn Chowder
Roasted Pumpkin & Vegetable Medley with Creamy Polenta
Polenta Napoleons with Wild Mushroom Bruschetta & Truffles
Rosemary Corn Financiers
Upside-Down Cranberry Cornbread
Tropical Corn, Mango and Black Bean Salad with Honey
Butter-Baked Corn
Santa Fe Corn Fritters

Online Etymology Dictionary
Peru Travels
Prom Peru
Origin, History and Uses of Corn – Iowa State University
What’s Eating America, Michael Pollan, Smithsonian Magazine