Summer is not summer without corn on the cob, without husking and picking the silk off the ears, without those little yellow plastic corn cob holders. My mom’s family has been growing corn for over 65 years on Fernwood Springs, their farm in southern New Jersey. At first, Grandma and Grandpa grew both sweet and “field” corn – the sweet for eating and the field corn for chicken feed. The chickens are long gone, and with them the field corn, but the sweet corn fields remain, wild purslane growing between the rows.
I have so many sweet summer memories from the farm - sitting behind the counter with Grandma at our family farmstand, eating honey straight from the comb (Grandma used to raise bees, too) and checking out the produce, just itching to get my hands on the juicy corn. The farm is where I first learned that honey comes from bees, what a gooseberry looks like and that the best, sweetest corn comes from ears picked myself in the back field. Grandpa is gone now, Grandma is approaching 90 – and so the farm has changed, even in my lifetime. It’s the last remaining produce farm in the area, a once vibrant agricultural community taken over by subdivisions and big-box stores.
Although I live in Brooklyn, I fancy myself a farmer deep in my heart – it’s in my bones, after all – with secret dreams of sweet corn fields and bees lazing about the red clover. Maybe someday I can carry on the farming tradition that has been passed down through so many generations on my Grandma’s side of the family.
Corn, a.k.a. maize, is actually a grass native to Central and South America. Corn was probably first cultivated in Mexico, where archeological evidence points to the first human-grown corn dating from 5500 BC. Cultivation of the grain then spread North to New Mexico and South to Peru, then to other regions of South America. It eventually became an important staple food in much of South, Central and North America.
Now here is where things get interesting: there is some controversy as to how corn got to the New World, at least according to The Oxford Companion to Food. One theory holds that Columbus brought corn back to Spain when he returned to Europe, after which it spread to the rest of Europe, to Africa, and then to the Middle East and on to China and India. A much more controversial theory holds that corn arrived in the Old World long before 1492, based on linguistic evidence and recorded accounts of travelers. This second hypothesis would mean that there was enough contact between the Old and the New Worlds to introduce corn cultivation prior to Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas. Interesting information to chew on, indeed.
There are several major types of corn, including sweet corn, eaten like a vegetable; dent (or “field” corn), used primarily for animal feed and other industrial applications; flour corn, used for cornmeal; and flint corn, also known as Indian corn, cultivated for thousands of years by Native Americans and often beautifully multicolored. Corn cannot self-propagate: the husk that encloses the seeds (kernels) prevents seed dispersal. Corn is also wind-pollinated. The male part of the plant forms the “tassels” at the top of the stalk, while the female part of the plant are the very annoying-to-remove “silks.” The silks catch the pollen that gets blown from the tassel; each silk is attached to an undeveloped grain that forms a kernel of corn when fertilized.
The US leads the world in corn production, followed by China and Brazil. It’s difficult to discuss corn production in the US without at least mentioning the drought that is currently affecting US farmers, many of whom rely upon corn for their living.
In general, US corn production is heavily subsidized, heavily monocropped and heavily dependent upon commercial inputs such as pesticides and fossil fuel-derived fertilizers. In addition, the USDA reports that as of 2012, 88% of corn grown in the US is genetically modified. And it’s not just GMO field corn – there is now a GMO variety of sweet corn that is poised to hit the shelves of Wal Mart and other retailers; as this article points out, the produce aisle is no longer a GMO-free zone. Corn is also a primary source of animal feed on factory farms. It is also used to produce ethanol, which has its own serious environmental issues as well as high fructose corn syrup, which has serious negative health issues.
The Environmental Working Group’s 2012 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce lists corn at number 48 (out of 49 ) on its list of fruits and vegetables with high levels of pesticide residue. (See our vegetable rule of thumb.*) Talk to your local farmer about his or her corn production methods to be sure about how your corn was grown.
Sweet corn is available only in the summer and early fall, in most areas between July and September. Because sweet corn is at its best when really, really fresh, try to seek out local corn from farmers markets or farm stands.
Unrefined and fresh corn is a good source of vitamin B6, thiamin, niacin, magnesium, iron and a number of other important minerals. Corn is also low in fat and high in dietary fiber and protein.
Look for ears that are firm, plump and fairly unblemished. Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to strip the ears of their green husk before purchasing them (and in fact, this drives farmers crazy) – just gently squeeze down the length of the ear to feel for bald spots.
Corn purists insist that corn should be eaten the day it was picked, or at the very least, by the next day. However, I have successfully kept fresh corn on the cob, wrapped in damp paper towels, for 2-3 days in the refrigerator. The kernels do become starchier and less sweet the longer the ears are stored.
To remove corn kernels from the cob, you can buy yourself a corn zipper, a handy gadget that removes a couple of rows of corn kernels at a time. Zippers are worth investing in if you plan to freeze a lot of corn or make big batches of creamed corn or corn salad. Otherwise, to remove corn kernels from the cob, I love this tip culled from Bon Appétit: holding the cob vertically, stick the thick end of the corncob in the center hole of a Bundt pan. Slice off the kernels using a small, sharp knife – the Bundt pan neatly catches the kernels as you slice.
Corn is amazingly versatile in the kitchen. The ears can be grilled, boiled, steamed or roasted; the kernels can be creamed, made into pancakes, turned into relish, added to salsa and even churned into ice cream. I have also eaten fresh kernels raw right off the cob. Cornmeal and its sister masa harina are used to make tortillas, tamales, cornbread, corn dumplings and corn pudding – among many, many other dishes from around the world. Try adding masa harina to chili to add a unique depth of flavor and richness. Hominy is made from corn kernels soaked in lime and is available dried or canned. Hominy is used to make hominy grits and is an important ingredient in pozole, a traditional Mexican stew.
Quick Corn, Tomato and Basil Sauté
If you're like me, you get a little sick of corn on the cob after a while, as delicious as it is. After I've gotten my fill, I start making variations of this recipe – a super simple and quick sauté of corn and other veggies that are at their peak in the summer. Try mixing it up with different types of basil (Thai basil is especially nice with corn), or add a slice of finely diced bacon before you add the garlic and jalapeno. Fresh lima beans or diced green beans would be a nice addition, too.
4 large fresh ears of corn, husked and de-silked
1 tablespoon butter
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 fresh jalapeño, finely minced (optional)
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved if small, quartered if large
Lime or lemon juice
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
Serves 4 as a side dish.
Corn is a natural for freezing. Blanch the corn (easiest to do still on the cob) for 3-4 minutes in boiling water, and then quickly cool in an ice bath (ice plus water). Pat dry. Cut the kernels off the cob, place in freezer bags and freeze. Corn can also be pickled, especially for corn relish.
(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)