Corn is a summer staple, a must at backyard barbecues, and one of the most versatile plants around. Just think of all corn gives us; tortillas, corn bread, tamales, popcorn, hush puppies, hominy grits (not my favorite but very high on some people’s list) polenta, corn pone, corn bakes, succotash, and the list goes on. Today we’ll take a look at this most versatile of grains as we enter the peak of corn season in some parts of the country.
Around 6,000 B.C. a Mexican annual grass called teosinte crossed with another wild grain and the resulting hybrid developed a small head covered with seed. Native Americans in the tehuacan Valley of Puebla, Mexico were the first to cultivate the plant around 500 years later. The plant had changed into its modern form by the time Columbus arrived 6,992 years after that.
Corn is one of the most versatile of plants so it’s no wonder it is also the most tampered with by agricultural biotechnology. Around 93% of the corn produced In the United States is genetically modified to produce its own pesticide (Bt Toxin) and to tolerate massive applications of the herbicide glyphosate. While this corn was once reserved for animal feed, processed foods, and fuel sources. In 2011 Monsanto announced plans to grow GE sweet corn on 250,000 acres, which is roughly 40%of the sweet corn market. Besides being used for frozen and canned corn products, and it is now also available fresh across the U.S. and Canada. For these reasons I only buy organic corn and corn products.
As the saying, and the song, goes corn should be as high as an elephant’s eye by the Fourth of July. The peak season for this summer staple varies depending on the region of the county but generally runs from July through October.
Sweet corn, that staple at backyard barbecues, is a natural mutation of Indian or field corn. The sugar begins turning to starch as soon as the corn is picked so for maximum sweetness you want to get the corn into the pot of water as soon after picking as possible.
Breeders developed a corn known as Xtra Sweet which slows the conversion of sugar to starch so completely it will stay sweet for two weeks after picking. However, if allowed to sit that long after picking it loses many of the enzymes that make corn taste so good, so it should still be cooked as soon as possible.
There’s another kind of sweet corn you may find in Farmer’s Markets called Triple Sweet or Sweet Breed TM. It contains standard sweet, super sweet, and Xtra Sweet kernels all on the same cob to give a sweet ear while still maintaining a good corn flavor. (Or so I’m told, I’ve not tried it myself.)
What to Look For
Ideally, if buying at an outdoor market the corn should be iced down. When freshly cut the cut stem ends are green or whitish green. As picked corn gets older the ends become white and fibrous looking. When really old they become brown.
There is no need to strip the husks to inspect the corn. First of all you can feel though the husks when the ear is full and fat. Then you can pull the husk down far enough to reveal the very top of the ear and give it the fingernail test. Press open a kernel with your thumb nail; if the juice is clear it is too young, if the juice is milky it is just right. An old ear will have tough and dry kernels .
How to Husk the Corn
Peel the husks back to the stem end, like peeling a banana. Then grab the husks in one hand and the ear of corn in the other and twist the husks off in a breaking motion. The ears are now ready to cook in boiling water.
Preparing Corn to Grill
Remove the tough outer husks and soak the partially husked corn in cold water for about 30 minutes. This keeps the husks from drying out and burning before the corn is properly grilled.
There is nothing quite like sweet, buttery, lightly salted, corn on the cob. Somehow wouldn’t seem like summer without it. Yet as with any of summer’s bounty a little variety is welcome. Here is one of my favorite corn off the cob dishes and a wonderful side dish at barbecues. Around our house all that was required for a dish to be called Succotash was the corn and Lima beans, but some recipes include red peppers and zucchini. The name Succotash is derived from the Naragansett Indian word “msickquatash,” meaning “boiled whole ear of corn.”
A Simple Succotash
1 C Fresh Shell Lima Beans (Can substitute frozen if you can’t find fresh Lima beans)
3 Ears Corn
2 Tbl Butter
1 tsp Olive Oil
1 Clove Garlic , Crushed and Then Minced
¼ tsp Salt
¼ tsp Freshly Ground Pepper
1 Tb Finely Chopped Fresh Basil (optional but a really nice touch)
Arrange beans on steamer rack over gently boiling water. Cover and steam until tender, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Drop in corn and cook for no more than 3 – 4 minutes. Drain and cool the corn slightly, until it can be handled. Cut the kernels off the cob by running a sharp knife from the pointed end to the stem end. Set aside.
Heat the butter and olive oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring for 2-3 minutes. Add the corn, beans, salt and pepper and cook stirring frequently for 5 minutes. Stir in the basil and serve hot.
What Did I Miss?
In this post I’ve given you a little background on corn, some tips for selecting and preparing it to cook, as well as one of my favorite summer recipes. Did I miss an important tip? What is your favorite way to eat corn?
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