Flash in the Pan 

The children of my corn

As I was preparing to move to New Mexico, a Blackfeet woman visited to see about renting my house in Missoula. It didn't work for her, but we hit it off, and before she left she gave me some bright red kernels of dried corn she got at a powwow.

I forget her name so I call her Corn Maiden, based on a Pueblo legend about a woman who brings corn. Corn Maiden, if you're reading, I want to thank you again for this gift. It 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 about what to do with it. There wasn't enough for grinding, and the corn was tough and starchy enough to 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 and proceeded to admire them for months while figuring out what to do with them.

Eventually it occurred to me 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 blue corn kernels, dried sweet corn and a type of smoked hard corn called chicos.

It's not unusual for me to now use five types of corn in my posole, which has become so different from typical posole that I have to call it by a different name: Cinco de Maize.

Start by soaking your dried corn, be it posole, chicos or plain dried kernels. Soaking overnight is ideal. Meanwhile, brown some meat, taking care to cook any tough pieces long enough to tenderize them.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

Begin simmering your soaked corn in chicken or veggie stock, with bay leaves and garlic powder. Add the meat and let it all soften together.

While that's going, clean some dried red chile pods and soak them in warm chicken stock. After they get soft, put the chiles in a blender with raw garlic and oregano and blend until it's a smooth, red paste. Add this paste to your simmering corn chowder.

Each type of corn will cook differently. Some will soften to the point of disintegration, while others will soften only to the point where they won't break teeth. When all the corn is soft enough, 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 loosely parallel flavors. It's brothy, hearty, spicy and sweet corny comfort food.

The principle ingredients of Cinco de Maize—dried corn, dried chile, 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 kernels.

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 an almost tea-like quality that improves 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 of the sweet, tea-like aroma of 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. Their concentrated sweetness reminded me of Halloween candy corn. I could go through a lot of corn like this.

Had I not eaten them, the 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.

Ask Ari: Salsa savior

Q: Dear Ari,

We've had a bumper crop of green tomatoes this summer, and now that they're finally turning red Jack Frost could be here any time. What should we do? I know you can cover them at night, but that only goes so far. I have heard you can bring them inside, but how much of the plant do you bring inside? And do you need to get them sunlight?

Please help! Salsa hangs in the balance.

—Not In My Backyard

A: I use a two-phase system for extending the length of tomato season.

My first goal is to survive the occasional late summer and early autumn frost. To do so, you must make sure you are set up ahead of time, having tarps or other light blanket-like covering materials ready to be sprung at a moment's notice. Keep an eye on the weather—I like the NOAA five-day forecasts online. Any time it looks like it's going to be below 35, especially on cool nights, go into frost mode.

At a certain point, even the autumn sun won't raise daytime temperatures past the mid-50s. That's when it's time to gather what remains for indoor ripening. If you have a shed or garage that can get a little dirty, pull up the entire tomato plants, cut off the roots, and hang them upside-down. No light is necessary. As long as it stays above freezing in there, the tomatoes will continue to ripen, as the dried leaves litter your floor.

If you don't have the kind of living arrangements that permit the indoor drying of tomato plants, another option is to pick the green tomatoes and wrap them individually or in small groups in newspaper, or keep them in brown paper bags, and store them in a dark place at room temperature. Pick through the bags frequently, picking out the ripe ones and being on the lookout for tomatoes that skip the ripe phase and go straight to rotten.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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