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Groundwork: When sweet corn tasted like corn

Sweet corn reaches new old heights at the American History Museum garden. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The Victory Garden at the American History Museum is designed to show off heirloom varieties of vegetables, those that would have graced tables in an age when presidents openly smoked, houses cost $30,000 and city streets had paperboys. Memo to Circulation Department: What happened to our paperboys?

Much has been gained -- and lost -- in the intervening decades. In the home vegetable garden, sweet corn is a great example of this. Varieties have been bred not only with elevated sugar levels, but the ability to slow the post-harvest conversion from sugar to starch. The result is supersweet corn such as Early Xtra-Sweet ("as sweet as honey") and How Sweet It Is ("up to 30 times the complex sugars of standard corn"). Some palates pine for the earthier corn of yore.

"They're all sugar now," said gardener Joe Brunetti as he examined his rows of sweet corn. As late-season varieties, they are tall but still in the midst of production in late August. The tassles are high and vital with pollen, the ears range from baby stage to table ready.

He is growing three varieties that are sweet enough, especially when freshly harvested, but retain a certain appealing starchiness that gives old-time corn its flavor.

The beauty of growing your own vegetables, of course, is that you get to choose the variety you eat. This idea has no greater power than in the corn patch, where you can reject saccharine supermarket varieties and spurn the dire monoculture of prairie corn, clones by the million for corn syrup, for fodder, for fuel.

This year, Brunetti has found his own sweet corn empowerment in three antique varieties.

Golden Bantam, now more than a century old, was a watershed corn. It was sweet but yellow, a color more associated until then with livestock feed. Stowell's Evergreen is even older, dating to before the Civil War. It was treasured for its keeping qualities in the days before refrigeration and supermarkets. You could pull the whole stalk, let the ear continue to ripen, and harvest it as needed. "This was probably the most popular variety for quite a while," said Brunetti.

Joe Brunetti examines a developing ear. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The third is the towering Texas Honey June, with a tight husk that proves a better barrier against the corn ear worm than the Golden Bantam (we can attest).

Joe, like anyone who is passionate about plants, continues to be awestruck by the way this grass reproduces for our benefit. The high tassles hold the pollen, the ear develops way lower in the leaf joints, first as a small tuft of golden silk. Each kernel forms at the base of each pollinated silk. It is an amazing thing, especially when you consider that the corn is wind pollinated and the fruiting part is nowhere close to the pollen.

Joe's sweet corn stalks are in rows for display purposes, but he would recommend growing corn in blocks to aid pollination. The more the merrier, and sow the seeds every two weeks from mid May to late June for a long harvest.

A baby ear: Each silk forms a kernel. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Another curious aspect of the corn plant, other than the nerd fact that it is a monocot, is its ability to produce aerial roots at the first above-ground node. The stubbly roots grow out and down to create an effective anchor against the wind and rain of sultry summer afternoons. Modern varieties, especially the supersweets, are not as good at supporting themselves, and should be aided in some way. Joe, for good measure, uses 10 foot bamboo stakes and twine to form a perimeter enclosure about 3 feet above ground.

Sweet corn needs rich soil, good drainage, plenty of moisture and at least two decent feedings of nitrogen rich fertilizer. Apply the first when it is about 12 inches high, the second when the tassles appear. Joe uses granular organic feed and fish emulsion, and noted that American Indians, well versed in corn cultivation, would bury dead fish when they sowed their seed. But I'm getting hungry, so take it away, "Downtown" Cindy Brown.

-- Adrian Higgins

Spicy, Sweet and Sour Corn Relish

Makes 4 cups

The Pennsylvania Dutch make all kinds of corn-based treats that they preserve in the summer to brighten dull winter meals. This is an updated version of one of my favorites: chow-chow. Even a simple hot dog is elevated to gourmet status when slathered with this.
MAKE AHEAD: The relish will remain fresh-tasting for a week if refrigerated. From Cynthia A. Brown, Smithsonian Gardens education specialist.

1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1 medium clove garlic, minced
2 to 4 jalapeño peppers, seeded and minced
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, chopped
3 cups fresh corn kernels (from 4 ears corn)
5 scallions, white and light green parts, chopped
Grated zest from 1 lime
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper

In a small saucepan, bring the vinegar and sugar to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the cumin and garlic. Simmer until the the liquid thickens and reduces by half, about 6 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the amount of jalapeño you'd like: two of the peppers for a mild spiciness or up to four for more pronounced heat.

Heat the oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion and red pepper. Saute until the onion and pepper just begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Stir in the corn and scallions; cook 2 minutes.

Stir in the vinegar mixture, then the lime zest, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook for about 5 minutes, then remove from the heat and stir in the cilantro. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve the relish warm, room temperature or cold with grilled meats. It is also fabulous on top of fried green tomatoes.

Per 1/4-cup serving: 50 calories, 1 g protein, 10 g carbohydrates, 1 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 25 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  August 23, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Groundwork  
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