The Children of My Corn
As I was preparing to move to New Mexico, a Blackfoot Indian woman came by to see about renting my house. She didn’t rent it, but we became friends. And before she left she gave me some bright red kernels of dried corn she got at a pow-wow.
I forget her name so I’ll call her Corn Maiden, based on a Pueblo legend about a woman who gives corn to the people. I hope she’s reading, and if so, I want to thank you again for this gift that continues to give, and has led me on a tasty journey of corn discovery.
Also known as maize, corn has been an important component of the indigenous American diet for centuries. Lately the plant has become a darling of the processed-food industry because of its versatility as a sweetener and thickener, but the modern varieties in use by the corn industry are a far cry from the ruby-kerneled Indian corn that Corn Maiden gave me. With red stalks, red husks, and red veins crisscrossing the green leaves, the whole plant is a feast for the eyes as well as the belly.
This isn’t sweet corn to be boiled and lathered with butter. The kernels are hard and dense, even when fresh, and are as starchy as rice. For a while I wasn’t sure what to do with it, beyond save a few ears for seed. There wasn’t enough for grinding, and the corn’s tough, starchy nature put me in uncharted culinary waters. I ended up peeling the husks and simply leaving the naked ears to dry in the New Mexican sun. Then I put those beautiful ears in a bowl in the kitchen to admire, for months, while I worked on figuring out what to do with them.
I figured out how to rub the dried kernels off the cob and add them to a pot of posole, which is a type of Mexican corn soup. The principal ingredient in posole is hominy, a large-grained corn whose kernels have been treated to remove the fibrous outer shell, and are then dried.
Corn Maiden’s red corn added a toughness to the stew, and a mild corn flavor, and starchiness that did what potatoes do in other stews, balancing and absorbing the broth, meat, and veggies.
I soon discovered that other forms of dried corn perform well in the posole as well, including seed corn, dried sweet corn, and an local style of smoked hard corn called chicos.
It’s not unusual for me to use five types of corn in my posole, which has become so different from typical posole that I can’t even call it that, so I call it: Cinco de Maize.
Start by soaking your dried corn, be it posole, chicos, plain dried kernels, popcorn, whatever. Soaking overnight is ideal. Meanwhile, brown some cubes of meat.
Begin simmering your soaked corn in chicken or veggie stock, with bay leaves, salt and garlic powder. Add the browned meat and let it all cook and soften together.
While that’s going, clean some dried red chile pods, removing stem, seeds, and inner membranes in a manner appropriate to the hotness of the chiles and heat-tolerance of your audience, and soak them in warm chicken stock. After 30 minutes, put the chiles in a blender with raw garlic and oregano and, adding some of the red soaking water as necessary for a good vortex, blend until it’s a smooth, red paste, which is also known as red chile sauce, to your simmering corn chowder.
Each type of corn will cook differently, so as you get to know your dried corn you’re better off making it the day before and letting it sit overnight, which will improve this as well as almost any other stew.
While some corn will soften to the point of disintegration in just a few hours, others will hold their form and toughness longer. Cook until no kernels are hard enough to break teeth, and then add chopped onions and winter squash to the pot and let it cook together, seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve garnished with chopped raw onion and a squeeze of lime.
Each of the many corns contributes differently, and a complexity emerges from the repetition of parallel corn vibrations. It’s brothy, hearty, spicy and sweet corny comfort food.
The principle ingredients of Cinco de Maize, dried corn, dried chile, and meat, garlic, and onions, can all be grown at home and stored for months. This means it’s a homegrown dish you can eat year-round. I look forward to my January soup being lit up by the next generation of Corn Maiden’s ruby kernals.
My current phase of corn research has been to make chicos – those smoky, hard, dried New Mexican corn kernels – from homegrown corn, rather than simply sun-drying the cobs as I had the previous year. Turning corn into chicos adds a tea-like aroma that seasons everything the chicos are cooked with.
Traditionally, chicos were made by lining a pit with hot coals and filling it with ears of corn. This produces wonderfully smoky chicos, but a modern alternative is pretty good too. Place the ears of corn, husk on, in a covered baking dish in the oven at 350 degrees for three hours.
After a few fragrant hours in the smoldering corn husk, remove the ears of corn from the oven, let them cool, and pull off the husks. Let them dry in the sun for a few days.
I recently dried a few ears of chicos-to-be upon a sheet of aluminum foil atop my dashboard during a road trip. Sharing the dashboard were some plums and grapes in various phases of dehydration. These chicos began the journey as sweet corn, and as I drove I peeled off the chewy half-dried kernels one by one and ate them. They were completely amazing. Their concentrated sweetness reminded me of Halloween candy corn. I could go through a lot of corn like this.
Had I not eaten them, these chicos-to-be would have dried to the point of being hard and crunchy, at which point they’re ready for storage. With a little soaking and cooking they will plump out and sweeten again, giving a breath of smoky, nutty sweetness to whatever’s cooking, from a simple dish of baked pinto beans and chicos to an elaborate version of Cinco de Maize.
The next generation of Corn Maiden’s plants are currently taller than I am. Tomatoes and beans are climbing high up the stalks as I prepare to make chicos from their first ruby kernels. This winter, instead of looking at pretty ears of dried corn in the kitchen, I’ll know just what to do.
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