Corn : The American Grain
We raise a lot of corn in this country--half the world’s crop. Even after exporting 40% of that, we still eat an awful lot of cornflakes, corn bread, corn on the cob, canned corn, popcorn, cornmeal mush and chocolate pudding (thickened with cornstarch), to say nothing of corn oil and corn syrup. When you consider that most of our corn crop is fed to animals, turning into meat, milk and eggs, it’s obvious that we are truly a corn-fed nation.
Where else do people raise corn? Mexico and Central America, obviously, because that’s where corn originated. The Italians and Romanians have their polenta and mamaliga. But where else?
Just about everywhere, it turns out, from north of Moscow to the middle of Argentina. After wheat, corn is the most widely planted crop in the world.
Corn is not only highly productive but in many ways more trouble-free than other grains. You don’t find your corn harvest full of worthless weed seeds if you haven’t bothered to weed the field. Ripe corn can sit on the plant for weeks awaiting your harvesting pleasure without scattering to the wind. (Sweet corn, the variety grown for corn on the cob, has to be harvested at just the right time, but it’s more like a vegetable than a grain.) And corn can tolerate a lot of soils and climates.
The second-largest corn producer in the world, right after the United States, is China, and a lot of corn is grown in India, Thailand and Indonesia. Though you don’t always hear them boasting about it, many other countries, such as Russia, Hungary and Iran, raise corn. And corn has become the major grain of Africa.
The trouble is that in many places, corn gets no respect. Most Europeans think of it as animal fodder. As far as they know, the only corn suitable for human consumption is popcorn and canned baby ears for salad. It may be that grain is so basic to the human diet that many people feel uneasy about eating a grain different from those their ancestors did.
The extreme case is Egypt, where corn is the main food crop and where the peasants live on a corn tortilla flavored with fenugreek. They call it betau , the name Egyptians have applied to bread since the days of the pharaohs. But not a single restaurant in Cairo serves betau , as if to say, “No corn here, we’re all decent wheat-eaters.”
At the time of Columbus, corn was grown in the New World from a tiny strip of what is now southern Canada down through the eastern half of the United States (but not the Prairies, the Rocky Mountains and the West Coast), through Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean (where Columbus heard it being called mahis , which gave us the word maize ), and nearly all the way through South America; today Brazil is the world’s third-largest corn producer. Even the Incas, who had domesticated quinoa and the potato, lived mostly on corn and based their calendar on the seasons of the corn-raising year.
Throughout the Americas, nearly everybody who farmed at all lived on corn, and cultures tended to revolve around it. North American Indian mythologies are full of stories about benefactors of the human race known as Corn Maidens. The Aztecs, a grimmer people, expressed the dominating, even tyrannical importance of corn in their life by the way a newborn child’s umbilical cord was buried. If the child was a boy, the umbilicus would be buried together with a shield and weapons pointing toward the direction from which the Aztecs expected the next enemy army to attack. If it was a girl, the cord would be buried under the metate , the stone slab where she was destined to spend her life grinding corn.
It was in Mexico, beginning about 5000 BC, that people started cultivating the wild grasses that are corn’s ancestors. The earliest corn was not very impressive. Its cobs, only an inch or two long, bore only a few dozen kernels, and each kernel was wrapped in a bothersome little husk. Fortunately, one of the most primitive varieties of corn was popcorn, which didn’t require any pots or pans to cook, just a hot hearthstone. Plant breeders have hardly had to change popcorn at all over the millennia, but most modern corn is huskless kernels on long cobs, either sweet, for eating on the cob, or starchy, for making cornmeal.
The Aztecs ate sweet corn ( elotl ) and popcorn ( izquitl ), which they sweetened with honey or maguey syrup and made into popcorn balls; they also scattered popcorn around when worshiping the rain god Opochtli to suggest hail. But to the Aztecs, corn basically meant dried corn kernels. Their word for corn ( tlaolli ) literally means “that which has been scraped off the cob.”
The nations of Mexico had long before devised a special way of treating corn by soaking it with lye, an alkaline product obtainable from wood ashes or ground sea shells. As we’ve often heard, the lye treatment not only softens the tough skin of the corn kernels but improves the balance of amino acids and frees niacin from its chemical bonds, so that lye-soaked corn is more nutritious than untreated corn.
The treated corn kernels, which the Aztecs called pozolli , could be cooked in a soup like the modern Mexican pozole . Or they could be ground into cornmeal, on that everlasting metate , and made into dough, which could be turned into the three basic foods of the Aztec world: tamalli , tlaxcalli and atolli.
Tamalli was obviously the tamale, a lump of dampened cornmeal (with or without a filling) wrapped in leaves and cooked into a sort of corn bread by steaming the packet or burying it in hot ashes. Tlaxcalli was the tortilla. (The Aztecs made tortilla chips out of dried tortillas and called them totopochtli , meaning “noisy to eat.”) And atolli was usually the modern Mexican atole , a sort of thin corn mush consumed as a drink, though any more or less liquid grain dish was called atolli . There were atollis made with toasted corn, soured corn dough or the soft inner part of thick tortillas, and they could be flavored with beans, chiles, herbs, sweet maguey syrup--just about anything.
In the 1550s, Bernardino de Sahagun wrote a report of life in Mexico City and Montezuma’s court in the last days of the Aztec Empire. Some of it reads as if translated from the Aztec language. For instance, in describing a market place the text refers to a drawing of a woman merchant in the lordly Aztec manner:
“She sells meat tamales; turkey meat packets; plain tamales; tamales cooked in an earth pit; those cooked in a pot; causing pain within, corn kernels with chile; tamales with chile, causing pain within; fish tamales; fish with corn kernels; frog tamales; frog with corn kernels . . . mushrooms with corn kernels; cactus pears with corn kernels; rabbit tamales; rabbit with corn kernels; gopher tamales: tasty, tasty, very tasty, very well made, always tasty, savory, of pleasing odor, of very pleasing odor, made with a pleasing odor, very savory.”
Sahagun goes on for pages in this somber, impressive Aztec style: “corn-tassel tamales with amaranth seed and wild cherries; tortillas of green corn; tamales of baby corn; tamales stuffed with amaranth greens; honey tamales. Tortillas that are thick, thickish, rather thick, extremely thick . . . thin ones, thin tortillas, stretched-out tortillas, disk-like ones . . . tortillas with mashed beans, chiles with corn, tortillas with meat and corn kernels, folded, doubled over, doubled over and salted, doubled over with chile, wrapped with chile, chile-wrapped, gathered in the hand . . . . “
Some of these “tortillas” were clearly what we would call tacos or enchiladas. But the food historian Sophie Coe points out that the tamales Sahagun lists were not quite like modern tamales, because the Aztecs didn’t have any cooking fats. The pre-Columbian tamale was not shortened with lard and was probably a lot drier and chewier than today’s.
The richness of this urban and courtly cuisine was confined to Mexico, but the basic Mexican way with corn spread throughout the corn-growing parts of what is now the United States. All American Indians who grew corn knew how to turn it into pozolli , which the European colonists learned about under the name hominy. They all made tamales of one sort or another (often plain, unfilled tamales), which might be the ancestors of at least some varieties of American corn bread. The thin corn cakes that used to be popular in this country under the name of hoe-cakes or Johnny cakes go back, via American Indian corn cakes, to the Mexican tortilla. Bourbon is not descended from the Mexican corn beer chicha , which American Indians didn’t make, but atolli might be the remote ancestor of grits.
The European colonists had a lot to learn about corn, and they didn’t learn everything they might have. If they’d picked up the practice of combining corn with beans, which increases the nutritional value of both foods, some parts of the South could have avoided perennial malnutrition. But one piece of Indian corn-raising wisdom that many of us learned about in grammar school happens to not be Indian.
Contrary to a well-known story, when the friendly Indian named Squanto showed the Pilgrims how to fertilize a corn hill by planting a fish in it, he was not teaching them a traditional Indian farming practice. The Indians didn’t fertilize fields. When a field stopped being productive, they just planted somewhere else for a while.
Squanto had actually visited England, which was why he spoke English (his first words to the Pilgrims were, “Do you have any beer?”). He had probably learned of European fertilizing practices on that trip. The reason the Pilgrims were so impressed with Squanto’s fish-fertilizer tip was that they were city people and didn’t know anything about farming.
In Guatemala and southern Mexico, the Mayas used corn much the same way as the Aztecs and other Mexican nations. However, at the time of the Spanish conquest, some Mayas weren’t tortilla-eaters and archeologists believe the Mayas started making tortillas only 1,000 years ago. Even today, descendants of the Mayas and the people of the Gulf Coast of Mexico make their tortillas differently from the highland people, shaping them on a banana leaf rather than patting them out between the hands. Incidentally, the modern Mayas have a unique use for cornmeal--they like to toast it and add it to their coffee. It doesn’t seem odd to them, because they’ve been mixing their hot chocolate with cornmeal for countless centuries.
Central America follows the Mexican pattern, making its corn into hominy and masa. The Salvadorans use masa to make a sort of round, grilled tamale called pupusa. But in South America, the lye treatment seems not to have been known. The Colombians and Venezuelans make their hallacas (tamales) with fresh corn kernels or plain ground corn, rather than masa. They also make a corn bread called arepa that is cooked on a griddle, much thicker than a tortilla and likely to be raw inside; the connoisseur splits an arepa and plucks out the raw part.
The Andes region--Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Chile--has a very distinctive corn culture. Although the first evidence of corn in the Andes is only from around 500 BC, which is several thousand years after corn began being domesticated in Mexico, some archeologists think the Peruvians may have domesticated corn on their own. Ancient Peruvian pottery depicts corn cobs so precisely that scientists can often identify the exact variety of corn depicted.
The Andes are certainly home to a lot of unique varieties of corn. The Incas developed one called Cuzco Gigante with massive, football-sized ears and flat kernels an inch long and almost as wide. And the people of the Andes have a real taste for colorful corn varieties--not just the yellow, white and blue corn we think of.
There’s one called Sajsa that has red and white stripes like the Peruvian flag. Peru is the only place in the world where some corn has brown kernels, and Peruvians have a long-standing taste for dark-purple corn. Particular varieties such as Confite Kulli are grown just in order to give a purple color to the corn drink chicha morada and the fruit and tapioca pudding mazamorra morada.
People in the Andes don’t plant corn with squash and beans in the Mexican and American Indian way, but either alone or with quinoa and lima beans. Instead of shucking the ears in the field and then drying them at home, Andean farmers pull up the cornstalks whole and stack them together in conical piles like hayricks; they remove and shuck the ears when the corn is dry.
In the Andes, corn bread is rare and tortillas are unknown. People like to toast corn kernels and either leave them whole, like corn nuts, or grind them into a precooked cornmeal called kancha that can be eaten as a snack or a starchy side dish in a meal.
At lunch or supper, boiled corn kernels or cornmeal ( mote ) is commonly served. Chunks of corn on the cob ( choclo ) are thrown into soups, stews and many other dishes--for instance, in the traditional pit barbecue pachamanca or on a plate of the lime-pickled fish dish ceviche. Tamales are known as humita or hallaca or even by the Mexican name tamal.
The rest of South America tends to use corn in the Andean way, making tamale-like humitas and throwing choclos into dishes. But in Brazil, corn is often made into a sort of couscous, doubtless a North African recipe brought to Brazil by slaves.
Oh, yes. They raise corn in Morocco too.
There’s an incredible smoky taste in this soup from the roasted poblano chiles. It comes from Alice Waters’ “Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook” (Random House: 1982), and it was one of the favorites with the tasters in The Times Test Kitchen.
CORN SOUP WITH ROASTED POBLANO CHILES 6 ears corn 1/4 cup butter Salt, pepper 3 cups water 1/2 cup whipping cream 2 poblano chiles, roasted, peeled and minced
With sharp knife, remove corn kernels from cobs. Melt butter in heavy-bottomed pot. Add corn and season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss corn in butter over medium heat.
After few minutes, add water and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally so corn does not stick to bottom. After 15 minutes, remove from heat and cool slightly. Pour into blender and blend until smooth. Press through medium-fine sieve to smooth texture. Add cream to correct consistency. Adjust seasonings to taste. Heat until just hot. Garnish with poblano chiles. Makes 4 servings.
Each serving contains about: 285 calories; 109 mg sodium; 51 mg cholesterol; 19 grams fat; 29 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 1.35 grams fiber.
A Peruvian specialty. Beef is the usual filling, but you can also use chicken, rabbit or lean pork. This recipe is from Felipe Rojas-Lombardi’s “The Art of South American Cooking” (HarperCollins: 1991).
PASTEL DE CHOCLO 12 ears corn 3 (16-ounce) cans yellow or white hominy, drained 5 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon unsalted butter 1 tablespoon coarse salt 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sugar Meat Stuffing 3 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and sliced 12 Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
Grate corn. Discard cobs. Grind hominy in food mill or food processor. Set aside.
Heat 4 tablespoons butter in skillet. Add grated corn, salt and 1 tablespoon sugar. Cook over low heat until mixture thickens, about 10 minutes, stirring and scraping bottom to prevent sticking. Add ground hominy and cook until mixture becomes thick paste.
Butter shallow 13x9-inch baking dish with 1 teaspoon butter and line with 1/2 of corn mixture. Add Meat Stuffing and arrange egg slices and chopped olives on top. Cover filling with remaining 1/2 corn mixture. Smooth out surface. Melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter and brush on top of corn mixture. Sprinkle with remaining 1 teaspoon sugar and bake until top is light-golden, about 1 hour 15 minutes.
Remove from oven. Let stand in warm spot 5 to 10 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature. Makes 8 servings.
Each serving contains about: 577 calories; 2,249 mg sodium; 148 mg cholesterol; 31 grams fat; 55 grams carbohydrates; 21 grams protein; 2.08 grams fiber.
Meat Stuffing 1 1/2 pounds lean beef, chicken, pork or rabbit 3 tablespoons olive oil 2 medium onions, finely chopped 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano 1 teaspoon ground cumin 1 tablespoon coarse salt 1 tablespoon Spanish paprika 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
Grind meat in meat grinder and set aside.
Heat olive oil in skillet. Add onions, oregano, cumin and salt. Saute over medium heat until onion is slightly brown around edges, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add meat, paprika and pepper.
Mix well and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid has completely evaporated. Remove from heat. If meat has released much fat, drain. Adjust seasonings to taste.
Corn and crab are a perfect summer combination that restaurant chefs in Southern California are taking full advantage of this season. This recipe was developed in The Times Test Kitchen. CORN AND CRAB SALAD 2 ears corn 3/4 pound cooked fresh crab meat, in chunks Fresh Herb Vinaigrette 1 avocado, thinly sliced 1/4 red onion, thinly sliced
Remove corn from cob with sharp knife. Place kernels in large bowl and discard cob. Add crab meat and toss gently with Fresh Herb Vinaigrette.
Divide corn-and-crab mixture among 4 salad plates and place in small mounds. Fan sliced avocado on side of each mound and top with sliced red onions. Makes 4 servings.
Each serving contains about: 441 calories; 1,028 mg sodium; 45 mg cholesterol; 36 grams fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 19 grams protein; 1.26 grams fiber.
Fresh Herb Vinaigrette 3 tablespoons Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard 1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs, such as tarragon or thyme 1/2 cup olive oil Salt, pepper
Whisk together vinegar, mustard and herbs. Add oil slowly in thin stream while whisking constantly. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes approximately 3/4 cup.
This is potato-salad season. But this is not your usual potato salad recipe. First, the potatoes are roasted rather than boiled. And then, they’re combined with cucumber, tomato, sweet green pepper and especially summer corn to give this potato salad an intriguing combination of flavors and textures.
GARDEN POTATO SALAD 2 1/2 pounds red potatoes, quartered Salt, pepper 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil 3 cloves garlic, minced 2 ears corn 1 large tomato, diced 1 large cucumber, seeded and diced 1 green pepper, roasted, seeded, diced 4 green onions, sliced 1/3 cup white vinegar 2 tablespoons sugar 1 cup cilantro leaves
Arrange potatoes in single layer in large roasting pan. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Combine 1/4 cup olive oil and garlic. Drizzle over potatoes. Bake at 450 degrees 20 to 25 minutes or until potatoes are tender and lightly browned. Let cool.
With sharp knife, remove corn kernels from cob. Toss together cooled potatoes, tomato, cucumber, green pepper, corn kernels and green onions.
Blend vinegar, remaining 2 tablespoons oil, sugar and cilantro together in blender or food processor. Pour over vegetable mixture tossing to coat. Season to taste with salt. Chill several hours for best flavor. Makes 16 servings.
Each serving contains about: 124 calories; 26 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 18 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.62 gram fiber.
With fried chicken, with barbecued ribs, with just plain hamburgers, corn pudding makes a terrific summer alternative to mashed potatoes. This recipe comes from Larry Ross’ “Nanny’s Texas Table” (Simon & Schuster: 1987).
CORN PUDDING 1/4 cup chopped onion 2 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons flour 1 cup milk 1 cup fresh, canned or thawed corn kernels (approximately 2 ears fresh) 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 1/4 teaspoon black pepper 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar 2 eggs, well beaten
Saute onion in 1 tablespoon butter in small skillet. Set aside.
Melt remaining tablespoon butter in saucepan and stir in flour. Pour in milk gradually, stirring until smooth. Bring mixture to boil, stirring frequently. When thickened and smooth, add corn, sauteed onion, salt, pepper, sugar and eggs. Mix well.
Pour into buttered 7-inch baking dish and bake at 350 degrees 35 to 40 minutes, until lightly browned. Makes 4 servings.
Each serving contains about: 183 calories; 1,148 mg sodium; 126 mg cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 19 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.48 gram fiber.
Most fresh corn tamales are actually made with kernels folded into masa--corn treated with lye, then mashed to a thick mush. But these sweet tamales, from Patricia Quintana’s “The Taste of Mexico” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang: 1986), are made with fresh corn and retain much of that just-picked taste even after cooking.
UCHEPOS DE LECHE (Fresh Corn Tamales With Milk) 12 ears corn 1 1/4 cups scalded milk 1 1/2 to 2 cups sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 sticks cinnamon, each 3 inches long 20 fresh corn husks, tips removed
With sharp knife, remove corn kernels from cobs.
Blend corn with milk in blender or food processor. Strain mixture through mesh sieve, pressing hard to push through most of corn pulp. Pour into medium saucepan. Add sugar, salt and cinnamon. Cook over low heat 45 minutes, stirring often until mixture thickens enough to coat back of spoon. Cool. Remove cinnamon sticks.
Place tamale dough on husks and fold husks to encase filling. Place filled husks in steamer, standing upright. Cover with layer of unfilled husks and kitchen towel. Place lid on steamer. Steam 1 1/2 hours or until husk can be easily peeled from dough. If necessary, add more water to steamer, being careful it does not boil onto tamales.
To serve, arrange uchepos on platter. Uchepos may be served either hot or cold with Mexican cream, sour cream, pickled chile strips or onions and butter. Makes about 20 uchepos.
Each uchepo contains about: 112 calories; 75 mg sodium; 1 mg cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 26 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.38 gram fiber.
Some corn relishes are timid in their seasoning--not this one. Jasper White, chef and owner of Jasper’s in Boston, adapted this recipe from a version his grandmother used to make. It comes from his “Jasper White’s Cooking From New England” (HarperPerennial: 1989).
JASPER WHITE’S CORN RELISH 16 ears corn 2 cups cider vinegar 1 1/2 cups sugar 1 tablespoon salt 2 tablespoons mustard seeds 1 tablespoon turmeric 1 teaspoon celery seeds 2 tablespoons dry mustard 1 teaspoon ground ginger 1 teaspoon ground allspice 1 tablespoon cornstarch 2 sweet red peppers, cut in small dice 2 green peppers, cut in small dice 1 large onion, cut in small dice
Cook corn on cob in lightly salted boiling water just until tender, 3 minutes if corn is sugary, 5 minutes if not. With sharp knife, remove corn kernels from cobs (there should be about 8 cups). Set aside.
Combine 1 cup water with vinegar, sugar, salt, mustard seeds, turmeric, celery seeds, dry mustard, ginger, allspice and cornstarch. Bring to boil and add diced red and green peppers and onion. Simmer 10 minutes on medium heat.
Add corn and cook 5 minutes more. Spoon into pint jars and seal. Keep refrigerated. Makes 6 pints.
Each tablespoon contains about: 15 calories; 38 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.08 gram fiber.