First domesticated in Mexico around 8,700 years ago, the growing of corn is one of the things that defined the transition from hunter-gatherers to agrarians in Mesoamerica. Corn spread from the Americas in the late 15th to early 16th century to the rest of the world where it promptly became part of the diet for both humans and animals.
The corn plant is actually a grass, and after bamboo, is the second tallest grass. It started as a knee high wild grass, but now gets much taller — witness the corn mazes that pop up in fall with overhead plants. Corn is the “grain” of the grass, but when we eat it fresh we think of it as a vegetable. As grains go, it really is the only one we eat fresh. It is also one that has a lot of baggage strapped to just how fresh it is, and a lot of this is concerned with how fast the sugars in corn will turn to starch after harvesting.
Sweet corn is divided into three distinct types based on sugar content and kind of hybrids they are: (1) normal sugary, (2) sugary enhancer, and (3) supersweet. The old fashioned corn, where you had to have the water boiling before shucking, is of the first type. The sugar in this corn literally converts to starch within hours of picking. The next type, sugary enhancer, has sugars that will last a couple days in the refrigerator, and these hybrids combine sweetness, flavor, and tenderness to be favorites amongst corn aficionados. The last hybrid is the supersweet, and as its name implies, it is sweet almost to the point of too much for some. This corn frequently has tougher kernels, and the flavor sometimes has an almost saccharine quality when the ears are stored for a few days. Some folks say that while the corn is indeed sweet, the flavor of corn is lacking.
At the farmers market, you can frequently find earlier hybrids, open pollinated varieties, and unhybridized types as well. At market, look for Golden Bantam, considered by many to be a benchmark of corn, or Country Gentleman (a “shoepeg” type with small narrow kernels), Kandy Korn (yellow), Silver Queen (a white variety), Ruby Queen (a red corn) or the bi-color Peaches and Cream, among others.
How to Select Corn
When selecting corn, look first at the cut on the stem. It should look fresh and moist, not dried out or tough. Check that the husks are not brittle, but moist, green, and plentiful. Use your fingers to probe gently through the husks for full kernels and at the tip to see if there has been a lot of worm action. If you must peel the corn, ask the farmers first, or do so respectfully and open the husks only a little. Corn dries out if you husk it, and some farmers really do not appreciate having the corn stripped and tossed back since it damages the corn.
To enjoy fresh corn at its peak, eat the day of purchase. I love corn steamed or boiled with plenty of butter or olive oil, but I enjoy it just as much off the cob sautéed with onions, peppers, and beans, or as creamed corn. I like to grill it and add it to dishes such as salsas or toppings for meat or fish, as a flan, and as a sauce. Also, save the cobs for making corn stock — when used in place of water for making polenta, it really ups the corn flavor.
Look for corn at Pinnacle, Mello-Dy Ranch, T & L Coke Farm, Route 1, and Webb’s Farm. Popcorn can be found at Mello-Dy and Webb’s. Lowell, at Webb’s Farm, frequently has fresh heirloom varieties in red and purple as well as dried, along with decorative ears for fall holidays.
RECIPES: Roast Halibut with Saffron Corn Sauce, Creamed Corn, Corn Stock, Fresh Corn Summer Salad, Fresh Corn Buttermilk Pancakes, Grilled Corn Salsa with Avocado and Cilantro, Black Bean and Corn Salsa, Southwest Succotash, Spicy Sweet Corn and Poblano Soup