Saturday, November 7, 2009

Corn: the inescapable grain(?)

It's been a long time since I last added another entry to the Whole Grains 101 series, but I'm ready to get back to it with a controversial grain.  There's a ton of debate about the classification of fresh corn.  Is it a vegetable, grain, or "vegetable grain"?  Well, it depends on who you ask but, in the end, does it really matter?  I think we can all agree that when corn is dried, it's a grain.  There's a ton of information on corn (people have written books on the subject), but I'll try to highlight the most relevant info to cooking.  Let me know if you think I've left out important information.

What is corn?
Corn is the most prevalent crop in the U.S., but most of it isn't eaten as "corn".  Because of the enormous subsidies given to corn farmers, it's become a popular animal feed, and is used to make all kinds of sweeteners, additives, and preservatives.  Don't get me started.  Anyway, there are several varieties of corn, including sweet corn, field corn, flour corn, and popcorn, and each has it's own advantages and disadvantages.

There are a ton of commonly-used forms of corn.  Besides fresh corn, it is also eaten whole as popcorn or hominy.  Hominy is corn soaked in lye solution (which makes the niacin available to the body), and then eaten fresh or dried.  Dried corn and hominy can both be coarsely ground into grits, or futher ground into cornmeal (sometimes called polenta), corn flour, or masa harina (from hominy).  Be careful, because often grits and cornmeal in supermarkets are not whole grain - look at the labels carefully.

What does corn taste like and how is it used?
I can't begin to describe the taste of corn without using the word 'corn,' so I will assume that everyone is familiar with its flavor.  It's used in just about every way you can imagine - see the recipes below to get an idea of its versatility.

Where do you buy and store corn?
You can buy corn (fresh or frozen) at any supermarket.  Fresh corn is best when it's in season in your area.  You can buy frozen corn or blanch ears and freeze your own (either on or off the cob).  Popcorn is also available in any store, but I prefer to buy mine locally.  Whole grain cornmeal and grits can be a bit tougher to find, but often they're available locally, too.  If not, they can be found at natural foods stores, and can also be ordered from Bob's Red Mill (they even have certified gluten-free versions) or Anson Mills.  Canned hominy readily available, but the dried version can sometimes also be found at supermarkets, but is also carried by Mexican grocery stores and online.

Fresh corn should be refrigerated until used (within a few days), and ideally in the husk.  Whole grain cornmeal and grits should be stored in the refrigerator or freezer, as the oils in the germ will cause them to go rancid quickly.  Popcorn and dried hominy can be stored at room temperature. 

How do you cook corn?
The cool thing about corn is that it's easy to find a local source when it's in season.  Here are basic instructions on cooking several types of corn:

To cook fresh corn on the cob, you can drop husked ears into boiling water for about 3 min, roast ears (still in the husk) in a 350 degree oven for 30 min, grill them (in or out of the husk) until tender, or steam in the microwave (in the husk) for 2 min per ear.  Corn can also be cut off of the cob and sauteed.

To cook dried hominy, first soak it overnight in water.  Then drain and rinse hominy and place it in a crock pot with excess water.  Cook on low for about 10 hours, until hominy is tender.  If you don't have a crock pot, then simmer it in excess water in a covered pot until tender (1 to 3 hours).  Once hominy is cooked, it can be refrigerated for about a week, or frozen in freezer bags for a few months.

To make grits (using stone-ground, whole grain grits), bring 4 1/2 cups of salted water to a boil in a saucepan and then add 1 cup grits.  Simmer, covered, until the grits are tender (50-60 min).  To reheat grits, add a little bit of water or milk, stir well, and microwave or heat on the stove.

There is a lot of debate on how to make polenta.  The only way that I've done it is to stir 1 cup of cornmeal into 3 cups boiling water (or stock), whisking continuously until it pulls away from the sides of the pot (about 20 min, but it will depend on the grind of the cornmeal).  You can also bake it, and some swear that you don't have to stir it the entire time (but why not get a workout while you're cooking?).

My favorite way to make popcorn (thanks to my mom) is to put a handful (or more) of popcorn kernels into a brown paper lunch bag, fold the top of the bag over several times, and microwave on the popcorn setting.  I either eat it plain, or spray it with olive oil and sprinkle with salt or a spice blend.

My recipes with corn
Whole corn
Crock pot squash enchilada casserole
Chicken and corn maque choux
Sweet potato, black bean, and corn hash
Spaghetti squash with black beans, corn, and kale
Corn, black beans, and tomato stuffed pattypan squash
Butter bean and black-eyed pea succotash
Stuffed eggplant with Sante Fe rice and beans
Colorful black bean salad
Quinoa and black bean chili
Amaranth, quinoa, and corn chowder
Corn souffle (not gluten free)
Jalapeno cornbread mini muffins(not gluten free)
Masa cakes with salsa verde
Corn and venison casserole

Crock pot chicken and hominy stew
Hominy with shredded chicken and peppers

Cornmeal/grits/masa harina
Summer squash and jalapeno spoonbread
Jalapeno cornbread mini muffins (not gluten free)
Masa cakes with salsa verde
Corn and venison casserole
Crock pot mixed grain porridge
Baked green tomatoes
Tilapia with cornmeal chipotle crust
Eggs diablo on polenta
Spinach and mushroom quesadillas
King Ranch chicken casserole

Other great recipes with corn
Whole corn
Creamed Corn from Simply Recipes
Roasted Corn Pudding in Acorn Squash from 101 Cookbooks
Corn and Black Bean Quinoa Salad from Closet Cooking
White-Cheddar Corn Chowder from Culinary in the Desert Country
Coconut, Corn, and Black Bean Soup from Vegan Yum-Yum
Roasted Corn Chowder with Chicken, Lime, and Cilantro from Karina's Kitchen
Mexican Corn on the Cob from Homesick Texan
Grits with Corn and Onion Greens from Simply Recipes

Perfect Popcorn from Simply Recipes
Spicy Popcorn from Taste Buddies
Chile Lime Tequila Popcorn from 101 Cookbooks

Southern Hominy with Squash and Mushrooms from Vintage Victuals
Cheddar Baked Hominy from Ginger Lemon Girl
Zucchini Mushroom Hominy Tacos from A Veggie Venture
Posole from The Perfect Pantry

Cornmeal/grits/masa harina
Herbed Polenta with Spinach, Cannellini Beans, and Caramelized Tomatoes from The Chubby Vegetarian
Breakfast Polenta from 101 Cookbooks
Shrimp and Grits with Bacon from Serious Eats
Grits with Corn and Onion Greens from Simply Recipes
Cheese-Grits Chiles Rellenos from Ezra Pound Cake
Sweet Cinnamon Grits from Recipe Girl
Cornmeal Pancakes from Gluten Free Mommy
Corn Tortillas from Simply Recipes

**I learned a lot about storing and cooking corn products from Lorna Sass's "Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way."**


Julia said...

Excellent summary! Very informative. Corn has such a bad rap these days because of the subsidies. There needs to be a better way of distinguishing between "good" corn and "bad" corn. I got into a tussle with a friend recently because I was eating something with corn syrup, not HFCS, and he thought I had fallen off my sanctimonious pedestal.

Katie said...

Thanks, Julia! I agree - there are definitely great aspects to corn, especially if it's eaten as a whole grain (and preferably not a GMO).

Anonymous said...

Great story as for me. I'd like to read something more about that topic. Thank you for giving that information.
Joan Stepsen
Girl geeks

Katie said...

Joan - I'm glad you found it useful!