Market Mondays – Corn

Poor old much maligned corn. It gets a bit of a bad rap these days, seeing as how it ends up in so many processed foods, and how it’s been genetically modified up the yin yang. And then there’s the whole ethanol issue. It’s too bad, because there’s nothing that says summer more than ears of sweet corn with the silks still wet, shucked, kissed with some boiling water and then slathered in butter. Made better only by the accompaniment of a lobster or two… but I digress.

Maize, as corn is properly known (the term “corn” is an English word for any cereal crop), is native to the Americas where it has been used for some 12,000 years. Maize made its way to the eastern seaboard and Canada somewhere around 1000 AD. Native Americans planted corn alongside beans and squash, a system known as the Three Sisters, as the plants were all complimentary, providing shade, nutrients and support in a system that provided optimum growth potential.

Modern farming methods called for corn to be planted as a single crop, which has led to a variety of problems with pests, weeds and soil erosion. Farmers attempt to deal with these issues by using chemical pesticides or resorting to genetically-modified seeds, and over 80% of the corn grown in the US is now genetically-modified.

The United States remains the world’s top corn producer with an annual output of about 332,000,000 tons. China is in second place with about half that amount. The majority of corn is produced for industrial use – either to be processed into things like ethanol or high fructose corn syrup, or to be used for animal feed. “Cow corn” as it is also known is usually tougher and more fibrous, while sweet corn intended for human consumption has become increasingly sweeter.

In cooking, corn is used in a variety of ways, either straight off the cob, ground into cornmeal where it can become everything from polenta to tamales to bread or tortilla chips. The kernels can be fermented to create a type of alcohol called chicha, which is popular in Peru. And let’s not forget popcorn. In its more processed forms, corn shows up in the form of cooking oil, cornstarch, corn syrup, processed foods such as corn flakes or other carb-based foods such as crackers. It also shows up in alcoholic products such as bourbon and lower-quality mainstream beers.

Lesser known but very interesting is huitlacoche (or “corn smut”), a fungus that occurs when the ears of corn get too much moisture. These blue-black spores are often compared to mushrooms and are considered a delicacy in Latin America, where they’re added to enchiladas, tacos or polenta. A few Latin restaurants here in Toronto serve it occasionally when local farmers find it in their crops, but for the most part the only way to get it in Canada is in cans.

When buying corn, you want to buy it as fresh as possible. Most varieties of corn available for human consumption today are all about the sweetness and sugar (I find many of these too sweet, to tell the truth), which allows them to sit on store shelves for longer without losing too much flavour, but for the most part, your best corn is going to come from a farmer who has picked in within the past 24 hours. Look for silks that are still moist; dried, browning silks are a sign that the corn has been sitting around. Husks should be bright and firm, not dry and browning. Peel back some of the husks and check the cob for colour, evenness and bugs or blight, but do not, under any circumstances, shuck the corn at the market or in the store. (And don’t you dare buy those pre-shucked cobs of corn in the styrofoam and plastic wrap from the supermarket. You might as well eat the styrofoam tray!)

As mentioned above, sweet corn will last a few days in the fridge without too much hardship, but wait to shuck the ears until you’ve got the pot of boiling water on the stove. Here’s how to cook that corn.

Once you’ve got your corn cooked to your preference, it can be eaten off the cob, or the kernels can be removed and cooked in other ways. I freeze corn in bags to add to soups, stews, salads and chili throughout the winter.

Grilled Corn with Pecorino, Chilies and Oregano
from Christopher Palik, Executive Chef, L-Eat Catering and Paese Ristorante

6 ears of Ontario peaches and cream corn
1/4 cup of grated Pecorino
1/4 pound of butter
1 clove of garlic
1 Thai chili
1 bunch of fresh oregano

Makes enough for 6 people

You will need a grill, a sauce pot, small frying pan, cutting board, knife and a casserole dish.

Start by placing a pot of water on the stove big enough to hold the ears of corn. Salt the water and bring to a boil. Pre-heat the grill and clean the corn. Finley slice the garlic and in a small frying pan and using all the butter, gently cook the garlic. Place the corn in the boiling water and cook until tender. Remove the corn from the water and place on the grill. From time to time turn the corn to evenly to char the outside. Pour the garlic butter into the casserole dish. Take the corn from the grill and place into the casserole dish, turn the ears to evenly coat with the butter. Finely slice half of the chili and pick the leaves from the oregano. Season with salt, sprinkle over the pecorino, chilies and the oregano.

Corn Chowder
based on a recipe from Better Homes and Gardens
This is my go-to corn chowder recipe and I make many variations of it. By adding some crab meat, chopped sweet peppers, black beans or some crumbled spicy sausage, it changes every time but it’s always fresh and flavourful.

6 ears of fresh corn or 3 cups frozen whole kernel corn
1/2 cup chopped onion (1 medium)
1 tablespoon cooking oil
1 14-ounce can chicken broth
1 cup cubed, peeled potato (1 medium)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1-1/2 cups milk

If using fresh corn, use a sharp knife to cut the kernels off the cobs (you should have about 3 cups corn). Set corn aside.

In a large saucepan cook onion in hot oil until onion is tender but not brown. Stir in chicken broth, potato, and corn. Bring to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes or until vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally.

In a small bowl combine flour, salt, and pepper. Stir milk into flour mixture; add to corn mixture in saucepan. Cook and stir until slightly thickened and bubbly. Cook and stir for 1 minute more.