First things first: corn and maize are the same plant - but I have to admit, it does get a bit confusing knowing which part is the ear, what is a cob or kernel and whether corn bears fruit. The ear and the cob are actually the same thing and the kernels, grains or fruit are also the same thing with differing names. This confusion is largely due to whether it’s being grown in the USA, Europe or the Antipodes. My family grew a lot of corn in our garden in New Zealand as it was an easy vegetable to grow, so long as it was kept watered, and it grew so quickly that you could see it change from day to day, which impressed me as a kid.
As a kid I wasn’t that keen on corn-on-the-cob, I have to say, I much preferred canned sweetcorn heated up and spooned on buttered toast. I found it almost dessert-like in its character and as I have a sweet tooth this appealed to me. The only way we ever cooked corn was to boil the cobs and rub salted butter over them, but I found them too tactile and fibrous, and too much hassle. Years later, travelling though India I discovered the joys of eating grilled corn. It was a revelation and it’s how I prefer to cook fresh corn to this day.
During my early days of being a chef I was taught to make polenta the correct way by my Italian boss Adriana Rogalsky. We never used instant polenta, we always used a ‘slow-coolc’ brand, and it would take about 40 minutes of slow stirring to cook it until it was ready. On one of the menus at Rogalskys, Adriana’s husband Tony and I made a terrine of polenta that we mixed with poached kidneys, sweetbreads and livers. We let it cool down in the terrine and set, then we sliced and grilled it till crispy - it was a fantastic dish.
As a young apprentice I also became aware of the ingredients corn oil and corn syrup. These were hard to find and rarely used in New Zealand and Australia, but whenever you read an American cookbook, especially a dessert book, they would always be listed.
North America grows more corn than any other country these days and that’s probably not so surprising, as corn as we know it originated just a little further south around Mexico and Central America, domesticated between 6000 and 9000 years ago. It seems that it was selectively bred and eventually its importance as a carbohydrate in the locals’ diet was recognised by the various people living in that part of the world. It spread north into the USA and Canada and from there, as Europeans began discovering these parts of the world it made its way to Europe, then on to Asia, Africa and anywhere where the growing conditions were right. Like soy beans, corn is used in many different foods and also for bio-fuel production as well as being used in the production of plastic and fabrics. And like soy beans, the genetic modification of corn has given it something of a bad rap. However, one of the good things that corn is made into is bourbon whisky - after being fermented and distilled to produce grain alcohol. Masa flour, corn flour treated with lime, is used in the production of Mexican tortillas, and hominy grits, which taste rather like bland porridge or polenta, is something I still attempt to enjoy.
Last week I was in New York and ate one of my all-time favourite dishes at Café Habana on Prince Street in Nolita. They grill whole corn cobs then smother them with melted cheese, chilli powder and lime. It’s always exactly the same - messy to eat, utterly delicious and very tactile. Try making grilled corn salsa by oiling the cobs and grilling them until they blacken a little. Then cut the kernels off, mix with lots of finely diced red onion, lime juice and coriander, add as much red chilli as you can bear and use it to smother over roast pork or grilled mackerel. This sweet and sour salsa is simply one of many tasty things to do with this wonderful cereal.
© 2010 Peter Gordon. All rights reserved.