Could this be the world’s most versatile crop? Corn, with its ability to grow in all climates, is cultivated from the Po Valley in Italy to stretches of Africa and south-eastern Brazil.
Its ubiquity makes corn number one in the grain production stakes, outstripping wheat and rice. So great is its supremacy, corn was originally a generic term used to describe the staple grain of any country, which explains why some ‘cornflours’ are made from wheat, whereas others are 100 per cent corn.
Corn or maize is a giant grass with an ear or cob, consisting of rows of 70-100 kernels, the fruit. It was domesticated in Mesoamerica; traces of corn have been found in Mexico dating from 5500BC. The crop gradually spread throughout the American continent, with Columbus taking it back to Europe.
The US produces almost half the world’s corn, mainly in its Corn Belt which stretches across the Midwest states. It’s such an American staple that “you cannot buy anything at all in a North American supermarket which has been untouched by corn,” according to Margaret Visser in (Grove), as almost all their products contain some form of corn: in packaging; added as corn syrup; as feed for livestock and poultry; corn oil in margarine, soap and insecticides; cornstarch is found in pharmaceuticals, baby food and jam; and the list goes on.
In other parts of the world, corn is used in its milled form in traditional dishes – in Mexico and Central America’s tortillas, Italy’s polenta, the American South’s hominy (coarsely ground corn) and porridge (mealie pap) in Africa.
Corn is surrounded by layers of tough outer leaves or husk and protruding from the top are fine pale yellow hairs called silks.There are five main varieties (and their hybrids) grown commercially.
Sweetcorn is the only variety that’s eaten fresh. It’s in season from September to March. Baby corn, the immature fruit of the sweetcorn plant harvested before pollination/fertilisation has occurred, is grown mainly in Thailand.
Another variety, dent, the most widely grown corn, has sweet and starchy dented kernels that are milled into corn flour, referred to as cornmeal in the US.
Flint has kernels that are white and yellow and have hard shells. It’s milled into medium and fine polenta; stone-ground is our preference.
Popcorn has hard-skinned kernels and is used, naturally, as popping corn. Native Americans have been popping corn for thousands of years, to use as ornaments and necklaces.
There is also a blue variety of corn which is ground to make tortillas and corn chips.
Corn is unfortunately one of the first crops to be genetically modified; these hybrid varieties make up a large percentage of corn harvested worldwide.
Corn is best bought when its husk is bright green with no signs of yellowing and it has a tail of silk intact. If possible, peel back husk to check whether kernels are plump; another good sign is the appearance of milk juice when a kernel is pierced; if the juice is clear the corn is immature. Store corn in the crisper of a refrigerator for up to two days.
Remove husk and silk just before steaming, boiling, chargrilling or barbecuing. To steam corn in its husk, peel back the husk, remove silk, brush with olive oil or butter and season with salt, pepper, spices or crushed garlic, re-wrap with husk and secure with twine and cook over a hot chargrill or barbecue, or in an oven. Use a sharp knife to remove corn kernels from cob.
*For a corn salsa, combine raw kernels cut from corn and place in a bowl. Add 1 diced tomato with seeds removed, finely chopped red chilli, thinly sliced basil, finely grated rind and juice of 1 lemon and olive oil. Toss to combine and serve with barbecued chicken or fish.
*For a corn and zucchini frittata, combine corn kernels, finely grated zucchini, grated pecorino and dill. Whisk together eggs and cream, season to taste and add to corn mixture. Heat olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat, pour in corn mixture and cook until mixture is almost set, place under a hot grill and cook until golden and cooked through.
*For Sichuan buttered corn, remove husk and silk from corn and cut widthways into 3cm slices. Steam, toss with butter and season with sea salt and finely ground Sichuan pepper to taste.
*For barbecued garlic and chilli corn, peel back husk and remove silk from corn. Combine butter, crushed garlic, ground chipotle chilli and sea salt to taste, spread over corn cob, re-wrap cob with husk and secure with kitchen twine. Heat a barbecue or chargrill on medium heat and cook corn for 10 minutes or until tender.
*For scallops with corn and pancetta salad, remove husk and silks from corn, brush with olive oil, cook on a chargrill until lightly coloured, then cool. Cut pancetta into 5mm-thick slices and fry until golden, then drain on absorbent paper. Cut kernels from cob into a bowl, add pancetta, coarsely torn treviso leaves and zested lemon rind. Heat olive oil in a frying pan over high heat and cook scallops for 30 seconds on each side. Drizzle corn mixture with olive oil and lemon juice, season to taste, toss to combine and serve with scallops.
Bacon, butter, chicken, chilli, coriander, crab, cumin, garlic, olive oil, pepper, prawn, red capsicum, salt, scallop, thyme, tomato.
Corn is top of the pops in the grain production stakes and hence, ubiquitous in most cuisines, from polenta to tortillas.