Corn Offers More Than A Summer Vegetable Staple

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No other vegetable brings up the memory of summer and warm weather fun like corn. An ear of corn buttered and seasoned to your liking is just the right thing to get you in the mood for a picnic. But, there is more to corn than that summer favorite. Let's take a closer look at some of corn's better qualities and characteristics.

What is it?

Corn is the well-recognized product of stalks growing tall in vast fields that reach the horizon.  The layers of broad leaves are the germinating environment for the ears themselves, and as the corn grows inside this cocoon, male and female flowers mature and release pollen as the entire plant matures.

In the United States, corn is the leading field crop by a two-to-one margin.  We know what corn on the cob looks like. But, this summer picnic staple has a bigger audience than that. Corn is used to produce everything from fuel alcohol for a cleaner burning gasoline, to butters, cereals, soft drinks, and snack foods. It is also grown as feed for livestock.

History

Corn or “maize” has been grown since prehistoric times by some of the earliest civilizations in our world's history. Mayan and Olmec cultures were among the first to cultivate corn in the southern part of Mexico, and the crop began to spread through the Americas by the year 1700 B.C. 

When Europeans began to travel to and settle in the Americas, they traded corn with their mother country, and corn began to be a well-known staple of diets around the world. Today, corn is produced on every continent in the world except Antarctica.

Health Benefits

Corn's most significant contributions for our health is as a source of vitamins B1, B5, and C, as well as folate, manganese, phosphorus, and dietary fiber. Folate helps reduce the risk of birth defects, heart attack and colon cancer. The B vitamins support memory function which can reduce the onset of Alzheimer's Disease.

A diet rich in whole grains, such as the grain processed from dried corn, (cornmeal and cereals, for instance) is also generally assumed to have phytonutrients to ward off disease to our organs and vital tissues. Research has also shown that eating sweet corn can support the growth of friendly bacteria in the large intestine which can help lower the risk of colon cancer.  Eating corn has been long believed to add much needed fiber to our diet.  That fiber can come from eating sweet corn or cornmeal.

Fun Facts

You can get creative with corn.  Of course, dried cornstalks are often bundled and used to decorate homes and businesses during the fall.  Also, a corncob can be treated and hollowed out to make pipes for smoking. Some farmers plant varieties of corn that grow very tall in order to create mazes for the sake of entertainment.

Scientifically speaking, the name for corn is “zea mays” which leads us to the word “maize,” the traditional name by which the Native Americans called this crop.  However, many cultures throughout the world have cultivated corn and called it by a variation of the word.  The colors of corn may surprise you. We normally see sweet corn on the table in shades of yellow, but corn is grown in a variety of colors which include red, purple, blue, and even pink.  Some of this corn is strictly ornamental, but some is edible, too.

How to Eat

Choosing a fresh ear of corn means choosing ears that have green husks that are not dried out. You can check the freshness of individual kernels by pressing on them with a fingernail. The freshest corn will emit a milky, white fluid that indicates the corn is at its peak of sweetness and flavor. The husks protect the corn, so they should only be removed when you're ready to eat the ears you've purchased.  I know many stores husk the corn, trim it, and wrap it in plastic.  If that's your only option, that's fine, but look for corn that is still in the husk for optimum freshness and sweetness.

The most common variety of corn is either the yellow sweet corn or the white and yellow combination colored sweet corn.  You may find a variety of colors in your region, including black, blue, and violet. These darker varieties generally contain more antioxidants and protein levels and less starch than lighter color specimens.  If you can't find fresh ears of dark colored corn, check out the blue corn chips. These are increasingly popular and make a beautiful, and nutritious, snack.

Frozen whole kernel sweet corn is your next best choice after corn on the cob.  The corn is picked ripe, then quickly removed from the cob, blanched and flash frozen.  The quality may often surpass fresh corn toward the end of the season.  

There are a number of delicious cold salads you can make with corn. You'll also find corn adds a wonderful filling taste and texture to many soups, chili, and casseroles. And don't forget the corn products, like cornmeal, cornflour, cereals, and other dried corn ingredients we can cook with.

If you are a grilling fanatic, be sure to add corn to your menu.  Just remove the silk, keep the husks wrapped tightly and soak in cold water.  Remove and place on low grill on indirect heat until you can smell the sweet corn aroma.  Remove and baste with seasoned butter for even more savory goodness.

It's no wonder corn is such a mainstay in our diet. With so much versatility, nutrition, and deliciousness, corn is going to be around for a long time.

 

Corn Recipes

Garden Corn Souffle

2 cups corn, fresh cut from cob
2 eggs
2 Tbsp butter, melted
2 cups milk, scalded
1 small red or green bell pepper, finely diced
2 Tbsp grated sweet onion
1 tsp kosher salt
1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Lightly grease a 1 1/2 quart casserole dish.  Set a larger baking dish out (that the casserole will fit in).  You will be baking the casserole in a water bath in the larger dish.
With a sharp knife, cut corn kernels from cob (stand corn cob on its tip, holding by large stem end, and run knife blade from top to bottom, removing kernels.)
In a cold mixing bowl, beat eggs until frothy, then whisk in milk and melted butter until blended.
Put corn, bell pepper, onion, salt, and black pepper in bowl with egg mixture and stir to combine.
Pour the mixture into the casserole and set it in the larger baking dish and set in oven, then fill a pitcher with hot water from faucet and pour carefully into larger baking dish so casserole is sitting in a water bath inside the oven.  Slide all the way into the preheated oven and bake at 325 degrees for 55 to 65 minutes.
Test to see if done by inserting a thin knife blade into center; it should come out clean if the eggs are set.
Remove and let stand at room temperature for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
This will serve about 4 to 6 people as a side dish.

Corn and Black Bean Wonton

1 cup fresh cilantro, packed
1/2 cup fresh parsley, packed
1/2 cup Vegetable Broth
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
40 won ton, wrappers
8 ounces black beans, cooked
1/4 cup Vegetable Broth
1 cup corn, cooked
1 teaspoon cumin seeds

To prepare sauce, in food processor, combine cilantro and parsley, process until chopped. Add the 1/2 cup broth, oil, salt and pepper. Process until smooth. Transfer to a small sauce pan; keep warm over low heat. To prepare wontons, in medium bowl, mash beans; stir in the 1/4 cup broth. Fold in the corn and cumin seeds. Arrange wonton wrappers on work surface; place 1 heaping tablespoon bean-corn mixture in the center of each. With pastry brush dipped in water, brush edges of wonton wrapper, Top each with another wonton wrapper, pressing edges together with fork to seal. Cover wontons with damp paper towels until ready to cook. Bring large skillet of water and the remaining 1 teaspoon of oil to boil; add wontons. Cook stirring gently to prevent sticking, 4 minutes. With slotted spoon or spatula, carefully remove wontons to serving bowl; spoon cilantro sauce evenly over top.

Crab & Corn Bisque

1 pint lump crabmeat
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1-1/2 cups finely chopped sweet onion
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
6 cups fresh corn kernels
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1-1/2 quarts heavy cream
3/4 cup thinly sliced green onions, white and green portions
3-4 additional green onions, thinly sliced for garnish

Gently pick through the crabmeat to remove any bits of shell or cartilage, being careful not to break up lumps of crabmeat; set aside. Melt butter in a 5- to 6-quart Dutch oven over medium heat. Add chopped onion and saute until translucent (approximately 10 minutes). Whisk in flour, then add corn kernels. Continue to cook over medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add salt and pepper, then stir in heavy cream and lower heat. Cover and cook over low heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally - do not boil. Stir in sliced green onions, then very gently fold in crabmeat, being careful not to break up lumps. Return bisque to a simmer over low heat, cover and cook for an additional 10 minutes; stir once. Additional seasoning may be added, if desired, before serving. Garnish with additional sliced green onions and serve with oyster crackers or French bread. Yields 6 to 8 servings as an entree. Freezes beautifully.

Sweet Corn and Halibut Tamales

4 to 6 Mission Flour Tortillas warmed
2 large ears of Corn (husks intact)
1/2 cup packed fresh trimmed Cilantro
1 Tbsp. Yellow Cornmeal
1 tsp. Sugar
1/2 tsp. Salt
2 Tbsp. Red Bell Pepper finely chopped
2 6-8 oz. 1 inch thick Halibut Fish Fillets
Salt and Pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly oil baking sheet.
Carefully remove husks from corn, reserving 4 largest husks. Lay corn ears on work space and cut off kernels. Process corn kernels until coarsely chopped (do not puree). Using slotted spoon, transfer corn mixture to small bowl.
Add cilantro, cornmeal, sugar and salt and process just to combine. Season with pepper and mix in bell pepper.
Arrange 2 corn husks on prepared baking sheet. Spread 1/4 of corn mixture (roughly matching size of halibut fillets) over each husk on sheet.
Season halibut on both sides with salt and pepper. Place over corn mixture. Top each with another 1/4 of corn mixture. Press remaining husk over. Cover tightly.
Cover both tamales with foil. Bake until halibut is just cooked through, about 20 minutes. Serve with warm flour tortillas.

Ham and Corn Beignets

2 quarts vegetable oil for frying
4 ears fresh corn
4 eggs
3/4 cup milk
10 ounces diced cooked ham
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup finely diced red onion
1 tablespoon salt
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder

In a large heavy pot, preheat the vegetable oil to between 350 degrees F and 375 degrees F.
Shuck, wash and dry the corn. Using a sharp knife, shave the ears of corn into a medium sized bowl. Using a cheese grater, scrape any remaining corn and juice into the bowl with the kernels. Discard the scraped cobs.
In a mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs and milk. Combine the corn, ham, cayenne pepper, red onion, salt, flour and baking powder with the egg and milk mixture. Whisk until a firm batter has formed.
Slowly drop rounded tablespoonfuls of the batter into the hot oil one at a time. The drops should form a loose layer on the top of the oil. Fry until the drops of batter are dark golden brown. Remove the beignets from the oil and place them on a towel. Check that they are cooked all the way through. If the centers are doughy, lower the heat of the oil and fry the beignets again for 2 or 3 minutes. Repeat this step until all the batter has been used.