Top | The Culinate 8

Corn off the cob

(article, Emily Horton)

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Corn has had a rough few years. With the documentary "King Corn," the book The Omnivore's Dilemma, and corn-bashing editorials in practically every news outlet, it's hard not to start to feel sorry for the stuff. 

After all the anti-corn press, most of us now know that summer's soft, sweet corn — the kind you eat on the cob, slathered in butter — is very different from the hard, chalky corn used for so much animal feed and processed food. But what about traditional mill or field corn, used for home cooking? 

Bred not for flavor but for insect resistance and yield, doused with chemicals and processed beyond recognition, much of the field corn grown in the U.S. is an environmental and public-health nightmare. Selected for flavor and grown sustainably, however, mill corn — of which hundreds of traditional varieties still exist — can be a nutritious, soulful food, as anyone from the southern U.S., Latin America, or Italy can verify.

Today, artisanal producers such as Anson Mills are milling heirloom varieties of corn with superior results. Get your hands on some of these special ingredients and start making traditional corn dishes from around the globe.

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#(clear n1). [%image grits float='clear right' width=300 caption="A breakfast bowl of classic white grits."]Grits. Bless their chewy soul, grits have never found much respect anywhere outside the South. But there’s no reason why this creamy, toothsome comfort food, made from dried and milled dent corn (a type of field corn so-named for the dimple at the top of each kernel), shouldn’t make regular appearances at your table. Think of grits as a canvas, like polenta (see below) or rice, perfect for cradling saucy braises or ragouts. Yellow grits are nutty and rich-tasting; white grits, which today’s Southern chefs often favor, evoke a more delicate, floral quality. When you’re shopping for grits, look for rustic, uneven particle size and a mill date within the last six months. 
Recipe: Basic Grits

#(clear n2). [%image hoecakes float='clear right' width=300 caption="Slice a hoecake into triangles and drizzle with syrup."]Hoecakes. As the story goes, the flat cornmeal cakes known as hoecakes got their name from 16th-century European settlers who used hoes to cook their cakes over an open fire. Most of us aren’t cooking over open fires any longer, much less using hoes as a cooking tool, so a heavy skillet works just fine for turning out these crisp, dense, earthy-tasting breads. If you’re looking for a hearty, rustic accompaniment to dinner, hoecakes are the ticket. Or serve them drizzled with cane syrup, as they are in the deep South, for an early-morning meal. 
Recipes: Hoecakes, Whole Grain Buttermilk Pancakes 

#(clear n3). [%image cornbread float='clear right' width=300 caption="Aunt Vie's Cornbread"]Cornbread. Every region in the U.S. has its own ideas about what makes perfect cornbread. Texans like to stud theirs with chiles and cheese, Southerners cook theirs up crusty and golden in cast-iron skillets, and Midwesterners tend to sweeten theirs up with a bit of sugar. Regardless of which route you take, cornbread is the quintessential partner for a pot of beans or stewed greens. Bonus: drizzled with honey or preserves, it doubles as dessert.
Recipes: Aunt Vie's Cornbread, Skillet Cornbread

#(clear n4). [%image spoonbread float='clear right' width=300 caption="Spoonbread is a light, fluffy corn pudding."]Spoonbread. Simultaneously light and rich, spoonbread, with its crisp crust and creamy interior, walks the line between bread pudding and soufflé. This is cornbread for a ladies' luncheon or a polished Southern supper. But because spoonbread is so simple to make and supremely delicious, there’s no reason to reserve it for special occasions (Thomas Jefferson is said to have served it to guests morning, noon, and night). During summer, fold fresh-cut corn kernels into the batter, and you’ll really have something special. 
Recipe: Corn Tart

#(clear n5). [%image hominy float='clear right' width=300 caption="Hominy is an ingredient in Chipotle Chicken Chili."]Hominy. Whole hominy, with its nutty, slightly sweet flavor and appealing chew, might just be the quintessence of field corn. Called nixtamal_ in Spanish, hominy is whole-kernel field corn that has been soaked with culinary lime and then cooked, a process that makes the corn more digestible and its nutrients more bioavailable. Ground into meal, hominy forms the basis for traditional corn tortillas and tamales (see below); whole, it’s a principal ingredient in those deeply savory Mexican stews, posole and menudo. 
Recipes: Chipotle Chicken Chili, Red Pork and Hominy Stew (Pozole Rojo)

#(clear n6). [%image tacos float='clear right' width=300 caption="Use corn tortillas for Pork Loin with Poblano Chiles."]Tortillas. Once you’ve tried fresh, handmade corn tortillas, it’s hard to go back to store-bought. Made from ground nixtamal (see Hominy, above), called masa, fresh corn tortillas are a dietary staple south of the border, and their tender-yet-durable character is a far cry from most varieties easily found in U.S. grocery stores. Fortunately, if you can get your hands on fresh masa (or want to take the time to make your own), making them at home is a cinch.
Recipes: Tortillas Made With Maseca, Pork Loin with Poblano Chiles, Guatemalan-Style Sopes

#(clear n7). [%image reference-image float='clear right' width=300 caption="Tamales can be wrapped in corn husks."]Tamales. Special-occasion fare even in Mexico, tamales take a bit of work, but fans will tell you the time and effort is worth it. Tamales consist of masa (see Tortillas, above) that’s been filled with one of any number of savory fillings, then wrapped in a corn husk (or other natural wrapper, like banana leaves) and steamed or baked. The result is tender yet hearty, and deeply satisfying.
Recipe: Green Chile Chicken Tamales

#(clear n8). [%image polenta float='clear right' width=300 caption="Ratatouille with Polenta"]Polenta. Italy’s version of cornmeal porridge shares much in common with the American South’s grits, the main differences being that polenta is usually produced from super-hard flint corn (as opposed to the dent corn used for grits), and milled to a finer grain. Served steaming hot, it’s a perfect, toothsome backdrop for saucy dishes like ratatouille or osso buco. But polenta has enough character that you could just as easily serve it on its own, stirred through with a knob of butter and draped with a few shavings of Parmesan cheese. Leftover polenta? Just chill it, cut it into squares or triangles, and pan-fry it the next day.
Recipes: Easy Polenta, Chicken with Herbed Polenta

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p(bio). Emily Horton is a Southern transplant living in Washington, D.C., where she writes about traditional foodways, local food issues, and sustainability. She eats grits for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.


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