Local Corn is Here and There’s Nothing Quite Like it
Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 8th, 2016, by Claire Hopley. Corn is everywhere. It’s in breakfast cereals, muffins, bread and chips. It’s tucked in as cornstarch in soups and sauces, as corn syrup in candies and beverages and as corn oil in fried foods.
Most delicious of all is that very first ear of sweet local corn savored in summer.
Corn is native to the Americas, and the first European colonists in Massachusetts would have starved had not the native residents introduced them to its virtues.
In patriotic spirit, local farmers, therefore, try to get their first corn harvest in time to celebrate July 4. It’s not easy and was touch and go this year.
The Ciesluk farm in Deerfield specializes in corn, growing it on 120 acres of rich river valley land. Nikki Ciesluk, who runs Ciesluk’s farm stand on Routes 5 and 10, already has corn to sell.
“Getting it for the Fourth is always a chance you take,” Ciesluk said. “It has to be planted in March, and of course there’s a risk of freezing. Lots of farms planted it and lost it this year, but we were lucky.
She said the farm will plant every week in a different field so they will have the corn into fall. None of the farm’s corn is genetically modified.
Four Rex Farm in Hadley is another farm that traditionally has corn ready for the Fourth of July. This year, however, it was a battle with the dry weather of June.
“Getting it for the Fourth can be a lot of trouble that doesn’t always come to fruition,” Joe Rex said ruefully. Most of the corn the farm produces goes to wholesalers who sell it on to farm stands, including some in Vermont and New Hampshire. But some is kept for the farm’s own stand on Bay Road.
Rex points out that early corn often has smaller ears. But that doesn’t faze buyers eager for the local crop.
“Most customers look for sweetness,” he said.
The appeal of sweetness is reflected in some of the names of corn varieties. Butter and Sugar is one of the earliest and most popular in our area. Another variety is simply called Sweetness. Other names include Crisp n’ Sweet, Sugar Dots, Sugar and Gold and Honey and Cream. Rex says he’s fond of the mid-season varieties Essence and Awesome.
Ciesluk says some of her customers eschew the early varieties and wait for their first corn of the year until late July when Silver Queen — an old variety — comes in.
Such favorites are among the many hundreds, or even thousands, of varieties of corn. The explanation for this multiplicity is that while corn, like wheat and other grains, evolved from grass, it has been cultivated for so long that all the kinds we now have are the result of human manipulation. The wild forms no longer exist.
The ancient American people who tinkered with corn and even our recent ancestors were not as interested as we are in sweet varieties. They needed to store their crop for winter, and so were keen on hardier and mealier varieties that they could dry and grind into cornmeal for making mushes and breads and pancakes.
This preference is reflected in older cookbooks where cooking times for corn were much longer than the minute or two usually suggested for fresh corn today. For example, in 1896, “Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook” instructed readers to cook it from 10 to 20 minutes, and as late as 1931, Irma Rombauer was also suggesting 10 minutes in her “Joy of Cooking.”
The need for corn to use throughout winter is also reflected in the many traditional recipes of our region. Among them are various cornbreads, johnnycakes, flapjacks, muffins, anadama bread, Indian pudding, corn chowder, corn oysters and many more.
Similarly, in all the many countries of the world where corn has become an important foodstuff, there are breads and cookies whose characteristic flavor and texture are of corn. Italian polenta and cookies such as zaletti are examples. And in the South and central American heartlands of corn, there are numerous corn flatbreads and puddings redolent of corn but with scarcely a hint of sweetness.
Now that farm stands have fresh corn piled under their awnings, it’s time to savor it fresh from a big pan of boiling water or from the grill. Or you can strip the kernels from the cob and combine them with vegetables or chicken or fish in supper dishes. Or you can grab a bag of flavorsome stone-ground cornmeal and turn it into muffins or cornbreads. Following are are some recipes.
Humita is a delicious and sustaining corn dish from Argentina. Recipes vary but the basics are grated or puréed fresh corn kernels with cheese and eggs plus flavorings. Additions include vegetables such as onions, peppers, and tomatoes. Sometimes it is topped with eggs or strips of peppers before baking. Sometimes it is spread over beef or chicken to make a filling casserole. This recipe is a recreation of the humita served as a stuffing for baked squash in the Maria Antonieta restaurant in Mendoza, Argentina. The local ears of corn are large, fatter than ours rather than longer, and taste like super corn because the flavor is so intense.
You can bake humita in a shallow baking dish, or in individual baking dishes. Or use it as a filling for small winter squash such as buttercup or acorn squashes.
Instructions for cooking the humita in squash — a rich, satisfying, and highly nutritious main dish — follow the basic recipe.
4-6 cups ears of corn
1 tablespoon cornstarch
½ cup milk
2 teaspoons fennel seeds or few drops of anise flavoring
4 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, chopped
2 scallions, white and tender green parts chopped
2 cups (7-8 ounces) grated Cheddar cheese
3 eggs, lightly beaten
Grated nutmeg to taste
¾ teaspoon salt
3-4 basil leaves, cut into thin ribbons
3-4 tablespoons grated Parmesan
2-3 tablespoons breadcrumbs
You need 4 cups of corn kernels. You should get this much from 4 large ears of corn, but will need an extra ear or two if they are small. Shuck the corn, strip the kernels by holding the corn in its base and cutting downward with a sharp knife. Process the corn in a blender or food processor. Alternately, instead of cutting the corn off the cob, grate it.
Mix the cornstarch to a thin paste with a little of the milk and set aside. If you are using fennel seeds rather than anise extract, pound them briefly in a mortar or put them in a bag and pound with a rolling pin to release the flavor. Set aside. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and grease a shallow baking dish with a little of the butter.
Heat the rest of the butter in a large pan, and gently cook the onion in it for 4-5 minutes. Stir in the chopped scallions, and then the corn and the cheese. As it melts, stir in the eggs, the cornstarch mixture and the rest of the milk. Grate nutmeg into the mixture. (If you use powdered nutmeg add just a pinch). Stir in the fennel or anise and the salt. Cook for just one minute, then remove from the heat and stir in the basil. Taste and add more salt, spices or herbs if you like. Pour the mixture into the prepared dish and sprinkle the Parmesan and breadcrumbs on top. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the top is golden and the humita looks puffed up. You can also use 4-5 individual serving dishes, add roughly a cup of the mixture to each one. They take about 15 minutes in the oven.
To stuff buttercup or other small winter squash with humita, choose 4 relatively small buttercup squashes, cut off the stem end and about a quarter of the top of the squash. Scoop out the seeds and fibers. (If using acorn squash or larger winter squash, halve them for filling. You will need two to make 4 servings). Bake them in a 350-degree oven until the flesh is tender but not soft. The squash should be holding its shape. This takes about 25 minutes. Alternately, bake in a microwave for about 7 minutes. Fill the cavity to within an inch of the top. Scatter the Parmesan and breadcrumbs on the surface and bake for 15-20 minutes until they have browned.
Chicken with Corn and Cider
Cider combines with corn to make this easy supper dish a favorite with kids — not least because of the sweetness of the corn and cider. Using chicken thighs that have their bones intact adds extra flavor, but it you prefer you can use boneless ones.
2 tablespoons canola or other vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
6 skinned chicken thighs, preferably bone in
Salt and white pepper to taste
1½ cups cider
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon or 1 teaspoon dried
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups corn kernels, freshly shucked from 2-3 ears of corn.
½ cup light sour cream
Heat the oil in a frying pan over moderate heat. Add the chopped onion and cook until softened then remove from the pan with a slotted spoon. Add the chicken thighs to the pan and cook for 4-5 minutes, then turn them over and season with salt. Add 1¼ cups of the cider and the tarragon, and finally the reserved onion. Cover the pan and lower the heat so that the liquid is just simmering. Cook for 20 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pan.
Mix the flour with the remaining ¼ cup cider so you have a thin paste. Add some of the hot liquid from the pan, and when it is mixed in stir the flour mixture into the pan along with the sour cream. Return the chicken pieces to the pan and bring simmer for 3-4 minutes, then add the corn kernels. Cover the pan again and continue cooking gently for 3 more minutes or until the corn is cooked.
Good with mashed potatoes, or latkes. Serves 4 to 6.
Corn and Scallop Chowder
This main-dish chowder is a perfect meal for a summer evening, satisfying without being heavy and exquisitely delicious. It’s quickly made too. These quantities serve four, but it’s easy to multiply them if you want to feed a larger crowd,
4-5 ears of corn shucked and stripped to yield 3 cups kernels
1 pound sea scallops
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons chopped onion
2 medium potatoes (about 8-10 ounces), peeled and cut in ½-inch cubes
1½ cups chicken or vegetable stock, or more as needed
1½ cups whole milk, or more as needed
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 1/3 cup water
Salt and white pepper to taste
2 tablespoons snipped chives or parsley or a mixture of the two
Stand each ear of corn on its widest end on a stable surface and scrape the kernels off with a knife. After they are removed scrape the cob, pressing on the knife, to remove the corn “milk.” Reserve both kernels and corn milk,
Examine the scallops and set aside 8 of the handsomest ones (or enough to serve 2 per person,) Chop the rest of the scallops into 4-5 pieces each. Keep the two groups of scallops separate.
In a large pan, melt 1½ tablespoons of the butter. Stir in the onions and potato cubes and let them cook over low heat for 3-4 minutes. Do not let them color. Add the stock and half a teaspoon of salt, bring to the boil, and simmer for about 12 minutes or until the potato cubes are almost cooked. Stir in the chopped scallops and cook for a minute or until they look opaque. Now stir in the corn kernels, corn milk, and whole milk. Bring back to simmering and add a little of the hot liquid from the pan to the mixed cornstarch. Stir then return the cornstarch to the pan, and stir it in along with half the parsley or chives, until the mixture thickens. Cook gently for 2-3 minutes, then season to taste with salt and pepper.
During the last few minutes of cooking time, put the remaining half tablespoon of butter into a frying pan and heat over high heat. When the butter turns a light brown, wipe it out of the pan with a wad of paper towel. Return the pan to the heat and place the reserved whole scallops in it Cook for 3 minutes then flip over and cook for another 2-3 minutes. The aim is to sear both sides of the scallops to a rich golden brown.
For serving, ladle the chowder into wide bowls. Top each serving with a couple of seared scallops, and sprinkle with the remaining parsley or chives.
Oysters are a luxury nowadays, but they used to be so numerous that they were cheap and popular, served as a snack, or chowders and stews, or fried. As supplies were depleted in the 19th century, they became more expensive. Since small corn fritters look like fried oysters, they were renamed corn oysters and served as a substitute. Of course, they taste completely different, and many people find them more palatable. They are especially good with corn soups such as Corn and Scallop Chowder, and excellent also with chili, barbecued meats, and fried fish. Gilded with maple syrup, they make breakfast special – with or without bacon or sausage.
1 egg, separated
¼ cup fine yellow cornmeal
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon salt
About ½ cup plain yogurt
1 cup corn kernels freshly scraped from 2 ears of corn
Canola or peanut oil for frying
Whisk the egg white until it forms a soft cloudy mass rather than dry peaks.
In a mixing bowl stir together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, thyme, and salt. Make a well in the center, and add the egg yolk and about ¼ cup yogurt. Mix quickly, adding more yogurt as needed to make a thick but not runny batter. Fold in the corn kernels and then the egg white.
In a large frying pan, heat enough oil to make a ¼-inch layer. Test the heat by letting a drop of batter fall into it. If it sizzles, the oil is hot enough. Make corn oysters by dropping heaped tablespoons of the batter into it. You can make 4 or 5 at a time depending on the size of the pan. When the underside is golden — about 2-3 minutes- flip with a spatula and cook the other side for a couple of minutes or until golden. Keep warm until all are cooked. Makes about 10.
Cornmeal Muffins with Blueberries
Yellow cornmeal and an extra egg yolk gives this muffin its sunny color that sings against the dark blueberry splotches, and using a stone-ground medium cornmeal gives a slightly coarse texture that is appealingly toothsome.
1 pint blueberries
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup yellow stone ground medium cornmeal
1tablespoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon cinnamon
7 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
½ cup sugar
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
About 1 cup plain or vanilla yogurt
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Put paper liners in the cups of a muffin tray. Wash and dry the blueberries then toss with a couple of teaspoons of the flour. Set aside.
In a large bowl mix the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and just half a teaspoon of cinnamon. (Reserve the remaining quarter teaspoon of cinnamon) Working quickly rub in the butter until the mixture is like very coarse crumbs. Add 1 tablespoon of sugar to the reserved cinnamon and set aside. Stir the rest of the sugar into the cornmeal mixture. Mix the beaten egg and yolk with about a quarter cup of the yogurt and stir it into the mixture. Gradually add more yogurt until the mixture has a dropping consistency though is still thick. Fold in the blueberries and fill the muffin cups about three quarters full. (If you have extra batter, use it to make 2-3 more muffins in an extra pan. Stir the reserved sugar and cinnamon together and sprinkle on top. Bake for about 18 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.