I know that all the recent news about corn has been grim. We Americans consume an enormous amount of corn in the sneaky and unhealthy form of high-fructose corn syrup. Monocultures. Bt corn and genetic engineering. Ethanol and farm subsidies. These are complex and real issues that require study and reflection.
But…I’ll just confess right now. I‘ve had corn on the cob already this summer—not local, not even Oregon, but, gasp, California corn. I usually acquire my corn at a farm stand or the farmer’s market, but early in the season, with temps in the high nineties and a BBQ planned, that big pile of plump ears at the local supermarket was just too hard to resist. I will also admit to having grown corn only once. I do not think it is a particularly rewarding crop for a small garden: it takes a lot of space, you have to plant a fair amount of it for it to be worthwhile, and every other critter in the neighborhood wants it as much, if not more than you—especially my own personal garden tormentors, a gang of thuggish raccoons that I swear have followed me all the way from New Jersey.
It has become a bit of a joke in our house how many different types of corn products I can actually consume in a day. Fresh corn, of course, is wonderful any number of ways, a nice corn chowder, or shaved off the cob into a salad or slaw, it’s all good in the summertime. But it’s really not quite summer yet, and I need corn frequently, like every other day, maybe it’s a Southern thing. Frozen corn is okay, it has its uses. But canned corn? And creamed corn is simply an abomination. But, there are other options, actually probably my favorites, ways of preserving and enjoying corn out of season that are nearly as old as the long story of humans and corn.
Hominy, sautéed in bacon fat with scallions, and served with cornmeal-dusted fried okra, sliced garden tomatoes, and a big mess of wild greens. Hushpuppies and cornmeal-battered tiny perch or crappie fillets. A big pot of pinto beans with a ham hock and cornbread made in a cast iron skillet. That homespun cousin to the elegant soufflé, spoon bread. Fluffy cornmeal dumplings atop chicken soup. Just typing out the list makes me homesick for the Ozarks.
For my birthday dinner last year, I requested Hominy Waffles from June #1 (aka Nicole), a recipe she has developed just for me and then graciously shared with readers of the Oregonian. Crisp browned exteriors and creamy, corny goodness on the inside—these waffles are perhaps my favorite thing she has ever made, and that’s saying a lot.
Finally, of course, I can’t forget to mention . . . grits! This weekend, the skies having reverted to overcast gray and with collard greens piling up in the garden, I made Cheese Grits and Collard Greens. Like many of the other foods TwoJunes love, it’s not a fast meal. You have time to think about things as you stand there stirring while the grits make their comforting “bloop, bloop” noises as they soak up liquid. Some people have ideas in the shower; I have ideas when I stir.
Grits terminology can be a little complicated. There are hominy grits and old-fashioned grits. Hominy grits are the classic Southern starchy side, bland, creamy, a blank sop to whatever sauce or meat juice they’re soaking up. To make hominy, a harder variety of corn, usually flint or dent, is dried on the cob, removed and soaked in an alkali solution, traditionally either lye water (in the old days from wood ash), baking soda, or in Mesoamerica, lime, to soften the hull which is then removed along with endosperm by friction. For hominy grits or for the masa harina used in making tortilla and tamales, those dried kernels are then ground. (Interestingly, this process, called nixtamilization, used in Mesoamerica and in Native American cultures, makes the otherwise bound niacin and some of protein in the corn more available. The early South and other impoverished cultures that adopted corn as the primary food source in the absence of adequate sources of protein tended to suffer from pellagra, a vitamin deficiency, which is addressed by the traditional means of preparation. ) Working for many years in NYC with primarily Latin American co-workers, the beneficiary of homemade tortillas (and tortilla chips) and tamales, I became even more of a maize addict than before. I became fan not only of corn, but even of the fungus that grows on corn—the deliciously truffly, mushroomy, earthy huitlacoche. And TwoJunes have in this very column already spoken of our love for Pozole, a brothy pork soup made with dried or canned hominy.
Now, back to grits: although I love hominy, and hominy grits are good, I actually prefer plain stone-ground yellow grits. Hominy grits are whiter, a little smoother and gloppier—I find the nubbier texture and the flavor of the old-fashioned straight corn grits (and this is what the Italians dub polenta) far more appealing. Since the whole kernel is ground including the husk and the germ, the flavor is far more complex.
And would you like to guess my favorite late night snack or meal alternate? Made the old-fashioned way in a pot on the stove, you guessed it, popcorn. That grandpapa of corn, teosinte, is so hard the archeologists theorize that perhaps it was first consumed popped.
Next week: TwoJunes tackle semantics: what does it mean for a movement when its terminology is co-opted by other movements? Does this mean the green, the sustainable, the organic, the slow food movements are passé and overexposed? Can you really raise a “free-range” child and what does it mean that we are choosing to use those words? Until then, happy eating.
Lisa Bell is a freelance producer, writer and editor. She spent the first fifteen years of her working life as a pastry chef, recipe developer, test kitchen director, food stylist and print editor. She has also taught cooking classes, run a small cooking school, and worked as a food scientist. Nicole Rees currently works as a baking scientist. She is also a food writer and cookbook author specializing in baking science. Her most recent book Baking Unplugged, is filled with simple, scratch recipes that require no electric gadgets beyond an oven.