Corn is uniquely American food that sustained civilizations for millennia. Along with serving as the foundation of the indigenous American diet, the exchange of corn led to the formation of trade networks throughout the continent and is still one of the world’s most important crops today.

SEASONAL in Southern California

History

Originally bred from a wild grass called teosinte, corn was domesticated 9,000 years ago by the indigenous people of southern Mexico, and spread through inter-tribal trade as far south as Chile. About 3,000 years later, Mesoamericans had developed the companion planting method known as the milpa, in which corn is grown symbiotically with beans and squash (known together as “the Three Sisters”). The Taino people of the Caribbean islands introduced it to Spanish explorers as mahiz, leading to the term maize. Carried back to Europe by Christopher Columbus, corn proved easy to grow in diverse climates and was soon being cultivated in Spain, Italy, and West Africa.

Nutrition

Corn is a good source of vitamin C, magnesium, potassium and folate.

Storage

Wrap the unhusked ears of sweet corn in a damp paper bag, then layer over a second dry bag. Store in the back of the refrigerator or in the crisper for up to 3 days. To store longer, freeze sweet corn until ready to use.

Tie husks of dry corn together into bunches, and hang in a dark, dry location until ready to use.

Preparation

Sweet corn can be steamed, grilled, or roasted on the cob. Sweet corn kernels can be added to soups, stews and chowder, made into fritters or even eaten raw in salads and salsas. Sweet corn’s juicy flavor is also a favorite when used in baked goods and other desserts, such as sweet corn ice cream.

Dry corn, bred for grinding into meal or flour, can be used in making traditional tortillas as well as cornbread. Corn flour is also a good gluten-free option for thickening soups, stews, and sauces.

Cooking

Separate fresh sweet corn kernels from the cob and sauté in hot oil until golden brown. Transfer to a large bowl and stir in cooked black beans, chopped tomatoes, yogurt, crumbled cotija cheese, cumin, cayenne, and chopped cilantro. Slice several small summer squash lengthwise, scoop out seeds, and grill until lightly charred on both sides. Fill squash halves with corn mixture, then return to grill until filling is warm and cheese is melted. Serve warm.

Pro Tips

Before grinding dry corn, it is advised to soak the kernels in a base of water and food-grade lime. This process, called nixtamalization, gets rid of mycotoxins, makes the corn easier to grind, and improves flavor, aroma, and availability of nutrition.

Blue Corn

Blue corn is a variety of “flint corn,” also known as Indian corn, that was bred thousands of years ago by indigenous people of the southwestern United States. Originally seen as a niche product found only in health food stores, the mild sweetness and high protein content of blue corn has created such demand that its production has increased by a factor of 10 since the 1980s.

Floriani

A “flint corn” variety developed in Northern Italy, Floriani corn is deep red in color, with pointy kernels. Bred specifically for making the perfect polenta, Floriani boasts sweet, hearty flavor and fine, absorbent texture.

Popcorn

Though modern archaeology has unearthed 6,700-year-old remains of popcorn in Peru, the first Western documentation comes from French explorers who observed the Iroquois popping corn kernels in pottery jars filled with heated sand. By the mid-1800s, popcorn was a common snack throughout the United States. Popcorn, historically as well as today, is made from the eponymous variety corn, with a hard, starchy shell and a soft center.

Sweet Corn

Developed from a mutated form of field (or feed) corn, sweet corn is a variety in which the kernels accumulate twice as much sugar and significantly less starch; it grows in yellow, white, and bicolor varieties. European settlers to America recorded obtaining their first sweet corn from the Iroquois nation in 1779. A summertime favorite, sweet corn is much more tender and needs less cooking than dry corn, and is often delicious when eaten raw.

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