Corn: Summer’s Starchy Star

By Holly Leitner

When Columbus returned to Spain in 1493, he described a weird tall grass he spotted in the Americas. Zea Mays Rugosa had already been harvested by the native cultures for some 5,000 years to 7,000 years and is thought to have originated somewhere in the highlands of Mexico. From 1493 on, the sweet tropical grass quickly spread throughout the world, becoming a global garden favorite.

Today, we sit in America’s hearty Corn Belt. We commemorate our favorite summertime starch by throwing festivals that honor it, we challenge each other to sweet corn-eating contests, we pair our light beers with it and call it a meal.

We judge outsiders on how they eat those twenty-some golden rows of perfection: Are you a horizontal, vertical — or weirdest yet — a patchy corn eater?

Come late July, we invite corn as our staple summer barbecue “vegetable.”

We certainly are proud to be deep in the heart of the Corn Belt, even though we may not be the most corn-fed folk. Today, corn is grown on every continent in the world except Antarctica. Corn, on average, is in a quarter of the products at the grocery store, from corn syrup to baby food to beer to the grain that fed the pigs that made the bacon. Between 90 percent and 95 percent of the crop is harvested for grain. What else can be an ingredient in plastic, baby food, grain and tamales? It’s everywhere.

And, with our Wisconsin wisdom, we seek out the tastiest. We salute our Mirai corn.

SALUTE THE MIRAI

Mirai corn was born at Twin Garden Farms in Harvard, Illinois, where the farming team was on a mission to make a great sweet corn by using traditional selective breeding techniques. Finally one day in the early 1990s, they had it.

“Our breeder took a bite, came into the office, and said, ‘I think we got something special,’” says Gary Pack, partner at Twin Garden Farms. The taste was unforgettable, sweet, even called “double sweet” — you can eat this raw. The Japanese even classify it as a fruit.

However, this new masterpiece corn was very hard to grow as it was developed from three sweet corn genes and required hand planting and meticulous care. America wasn’t ready for it yet, but the Japanese were as they are willing to spend more time and money on their agricultural products. They fell in love with the corn, calling it “Mirai,” meaning “Taste of the Future.” Years later, our farmers found easier ways to grow the corn, and we’re now lucky enough to see Mirai corn signs pop up every summer.

To prepare a feast starring this summertime starch, follow these suggestions:

Boiling:

Remove husks and silk. Place the ears in enough boiling water to completely cover them and boil for 2 ½ to 3 minutes. Avoid overcooking.

Microwave:

Remove husks and silk and rinse with water. Lightly wrap or cover ears with damp paper towels or napkins, and cook at full power for 2 minutes per ear. To ensure that the corn is evenly cooked, turn it once halfway through the cooking cycle.

Grilling:

For grilling, keep the husks on the ears of corn, but remove exposed silk and any long “flag leaves” that may be attached to the ears. Soak the ears in cold water for one hour; this allows the corn to steam on the grill for excellent flavor. After soaking, place the ears on a hot grill (don’t stack them). While cooking, rotate the ears a quarter turn often, until husks are blackened and kernels have turned darker yellow.

Freezing:

Remove husk and silk. Blanch corn by placing ears in boiling water for 2 minutes. Remove the corn from the pot, cut kernels from cob. Package the corn immediately in freezer bags and place in freezer.

BI-COLORED SWEET CORN AND BLACK BEAN SALSA

By Chef David Ross, Lake Lawn Resort

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 ½ tbsp. salad oil
  • 2 cups cooked bi-colored sweet corn
  • 1 cup black beans, cooked
  • ½ cup red bell pepper, diced
  • ½ cup red onion, diced
  • ¼ cup Roma tomato, diced
  • 1 tbsp. fresh lime juice
  • 2 tsp. minced garlic
  • 1 jalapeno, seeded and minced
  • 2 tbsp. cilantro, rough chopped
  • ½ tbsp. chili powder
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • ½ tsp. Sriracha hot chile sauce
  • pinch of kosher salt
  • pinch of black pepper, fresh ground

DIRECTIONS

Combine all ingredients up to salt and pepper in a mixing bowl then toss and mix well to combine. Adjust seasoning with the salt and pepper.

Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. Can be made one to two days ahead. Best when served at room temperature. Serve with fresh corn tortilla chips.

*For a spicier salad, leave the seeds in the jalapeno.

CORN AND CHICKEN CHOWDER

Recipe compliments of Rory and Deb McDonald, winners of the 2007 Corn Cook-off contest in Darien, Wisconsin.

INGREDIENTS

  • 3 tsp. olive oil
  • 3 strips bacon
  • ¼ cup chopped celery
  • ¼ cup chopped carrots
  • ½ cup diced onion
  • 1 diced Serrano pepper
  • 2 tbsp. fl our
  • ½ cup beer
  • 3 cups milk (2 percent) or 1 ½ cups goat’s milk plus 1 ½ cups water
  • 2 cups chopped roasted or sautéed boneless chicken breast
  • 1 ½ cups fresh corn (3-4 ears)
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. thyme
  • ¼ tsp. red cayenne pepper
  • 1 14.75-oz. can cream style corn
  • 1 15-oz. can chicken broth
  • 1 ripe fresh tomato, diced

DIRECTIONS

Sauté bacon, celery, carrot and onion in 2 teaspoons of olive oil until the bacon is crisp and vegetables are tender (3-4 minutes). Stir frequently. Add flour and cook one minute. Add beer and stir. Add all the remaining ingredients. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 15-30 minutes.

Makes six servings.

ROASTED CORN SOUP BASE

by Chef Nelson of Lake Geneva Yacht Club

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 medium Spanish onion (diced)
  • 1 ½ poblano peppers (diced)
  • 12 oz. unsalted butter
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 ½ tsp. ground thyme
  • 2 ¾ cups masa harina
  • 2 bags frozen corn
  • ¼ can chipotles in adobe sauce
  • 4 oz. chicken base
  • water
  • salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

Using at least a 2-gallon stock pot, sweat poblanos and onions in butter, add thyme and toast for 2 minutes. Add masa and stir to combine, cook for 5 to 6 minutes. Meanwhile roast corn at 350 degrees until browned at the edges. Puree ½ the corn, chipotles and enough water to cover all in a blender. Add 1 to 1 ½ gallons of water to the roux mixture and bring to a full simmer, stirring often. Add chicken base and the rest of the corn, mix well, add salt and pepper to taste. Thin with more water or half and half if needed.

Makes 1 to 1 ½ gallons.

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