FOOD FOR THOUGHT - August 13, 2008 - Mark R. Vogel
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See Also: A-Maize-ing 1 HIstory; Corn Recipes
In the last edition of “Food For Thought” we began our tour of the amazing world of maize, i.e., corn. The amazing thing about corn is its sundry uses. Last week we discussed the history of corn cultivation, the various types, and the non-culinary uses. Let’s now delve into corn selection and cookery, and the multitude of food-related ways that corn can be utilized.
First up is selecting corn. Sally forth to any major supermarket during corn’s peak season, (May through September), and you will find a large bin of corn, inevitably strewn with ears partially husked by consumers who have inspected the lot. Supermarkets detest this practice and some will not allow it. Indeed, no other vegetable or fruit is peeled before purchasing. I have to agree with the supermarkets on this one.
Corn degrades at one of the fastest rates in the vegetal world. Immediately after being picked the natural sugars begin converting to starch. Even one day can produce a noticeable reduction in the sweetness and flavor. This is why it is vital to consume corn as close to harvesting as possible.
There are a number of problems with strip-searching corn in the modern supermarket. First, you’ll rarely find really fresh corn in a supermarket. By the time its harvested, packed, loaded on a truck, shipped to the store, languishes in the storage room waiting for someone to notice it, and is finally shelved by some listless teenager, “fresh” is no longer a consideration. So to some degree, supermarket inspection of corn is a moot point. Second, once the ear is hulled degradation accelerates even further, not to mention moisture loss and exposure to external pathogens and parasites. If the opened ear is rejected, most likely it will end up in the garbage, (since ensuing customers will be highly reluctant to purchase it). Moreover, I’m not sure many people even know what they’re looking for since I find many partially stripped ears that have been shunned with no discernable anomalies to the kernels themselves. But now the supermarket is stuck with countless ears that won’t be purchased because they’re already open, or have deteriorated from being opened. They have to make up for this loss. How ironic that we all end up paying more for corn due to the rejects that may have been serviceable in the first place.
If you know what to scrutinize it’s really not necessary to shed the husks to identify acceptable corn. Look for bright green husks devoid of undue colorations or brown spots. The stem should be form and moist. The tassel of silk should be yellow or golden brown, silky and glossy. (You’re not likely to encounter this latter indicator of quality in a supermarket, since the tassel is one of the first things to degrade). Finally, the kernels should be plump, firm, and devoid of gaps. You can judge the kernels by palpating the husks with your fingers. One final test does require access to the kernels directly, namely, popping them with a fingernail should produce a juicy, milky-colored emission. But, if all the other non-peeling indicators of quality are present, this final test is practically superfluous.
The culinary uses of corn are seemingly endless. Cornstarch is a very popular thickener for all kinds of concoctions such as puddings, sauces, soups, Asian dishes, and many others. Corn oil, high in the benevolent polyunsaturated fat, and possessing a high smoke point, is ideal for frying. Cornmeal and corn flour (finely ground cornmeal), are the building blocks for a panoply of products: corn muffins, tortillas, taco shells, polenta, grits, hominy, cereals, (such as the quintessential Corn Flakes), corn bread, porridges, and many, many other dishes throughout the world. And of course, how can I even consider outlining the uses of corn without paying reverence to corn whiskey, particularly bourbon.
Then there are the myriad of non-processed means of enjoying corn: One of my favorite uses of summer corn is a grilled corn and tomato salad. Grilling really intensifies the natural flavor of the corn. Grill it with the husks off. Direct contact with the grates will produce greater flavor than when blanketed in the husk. Simply brush some ears with oil, place it on the grill and give it a quarter turn as each side starts to sear. Cut off the kernels and mix them with diced tomato and cilantro and a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Or make a standard salsa, add corn and employ it as a side dish.
But of course, nothing beats good ole fashioned corn on the cob, an American tradition not widely practiced in Europe. Simply drop the ears in a large pot of already boiling water for 5 minutes, (or even better, grill them as for the corn and tomato salad above). Don’t bother adding sugar to the water, although you can add salt if you like. Remove the ears, slather them with a cloying amount of butter, and a generous sprinkle of salt. It doesn’t get any better than this.
• 1 medium onion, chopped
• 1 small yellow bell pepper, chopped
• 1 carrot, chopped
• 4 tablespoons butter
• Salt and white pepper to taste
• 5 ears of corn, stripped of their kernels
• 3 cups chicken stock
• ¾ cup heavy cream or milk
• Frank’s cayenne pepper sauce to taste
• Dried red pepper powder, to taste
Sweat the vegetables at medium heat in the butter with the salt and pepper until soft. Add corn and chicken stock, bring to a boil, cover, and then simmer for 20 minutes. Puree in a blender for a minute. Strain into a clean pot, pushing as much as you can of the remaining pulp through the strainer. Add milk, reheat the soup and add cayenne pepper sauce and/or dried red pepper powder to taste. Serve with warm tortillas for dunking in the soup.
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