RARE WHITE CORN HARVEST IN JAPAN
Few summer vegetables can match the draw of crunchy, sweet and golden corn. Available at the end of summer and only for a short time, fresh-harvested corn’s scarcity makes it all the more desirable. Seen less often but every bit as delicious and nutritious as its golden relative is white corn. One could be forgiven for thinking it to be an underripe version of golden yellow corn but in fact it is just as it should be. In Japan farmers tend to plant more of the premium and heirloom varietals – white corn being an especially popular variation. In Tokyo during the month of August white corn can usually be found on weekends at the UN market near Aoyama-Omontesando and of course in the fresh food courts of upscale department stores like ISETAN and Takashimaya. It is worth searching out because it offers a more sensitive taste and textural experience than its golden yellow cousin. Whereas golden corn is intensely sweet, white corn is more subtle. White corn kernels also offer a more delicate chew perhaps due to its thinner kernel skin. If golden yellow corn is the masculine varietal then white corn is its feminine counterpart. Outside Japan look out for it in late summer at weekend local farm markets and specialty vegetable shops.
Unlike golden corn, white corn has pale ivory kernels wrapped inside its overlapping layers of thin green husk. When fully ripe its 400 kernels become all-at-once tender, sweet and juicy. Maturing ears of corn evolve through a process during which the water content decreases. Once it reaches its peak ripeness a secondary stage kicks in whereby its sugars turn to starch becoming tougher, more chewy and drier. Visiting your local farm or market means buying corn at their best – at the source. A seasoned chef will tell you that the real magic of eating corn resides on the day it was picked and only during its natural growing season. It is at that moment that the forces of the natural world conspire to offer a vegetable that at the right moment sits at the very top of gastronomical experiences.
HISTORY OF WHITE CORN
The mystery of where corn first appeared has yet to be completely solved although evidence exists to support more than a few theories. Corn is often associated with the West and North America specifically. Whether it be Mexican or Tex-Mex or Southwestern Food it has a well-defined geographic association. However, the real story of corn precedes the Empires that settled in the West. The idea that corn began in 1492 when Columbus’s men discovered this golden crop in Cuba offers an incomplete historical view. American Native Indian culture is where the true story of corn begins.
Archeological suggests corn is indigenous to the western hemisphere as was identified from corn pollen grain considered to be 80,000 years old obtained from a find beneath Mexico City. It descended from teosinte, a wild grass that continues to thrive in parts of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. Radiocarbon dating indicates corncobs that were 5,600 years old in another archeological study conducted in bat caves in New Mexico. General consensus of historians is that corn was domesticated in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico – its original wild form now considered to have fallen extinct. Further evidence points to the cultivation of corn creating cross hybrids to primitive maize that eventually led to modern versions. Human domestication of corn through agriculture has modified corn from a wild plant in its recent form.
Only after association with them was it exported to Europe. Corn grew from an exotic plant grown in European gardens to become the major crop it is recognized as today in many food cultures. Within years of its first introduction it quickly spread throughout France, Italy, and most of southeastern Europe – eventually reaching the Northern countries of Africa. By 1575, its popularity had mad inroads to the Far East including China and the Phillipines.
Corn is now consumed across the world and can be found present in many consumer products. They type of corn used in processed food is different than the varietals consumed fresh. The increasing role of corn in our diets is a worrisome trend – particularly so as mono-cropping runs completely counterintuitive to the centuries of improving quality in taste, health and sustainable management of farms that precede it. The goal of improving corn production for both human health and eco management have been displaced by dark forces that work solely to exploit rather than enhance life. To contemplate why such changes have taken place is now part of the global discourse and clearly needs to be taken seriously.
VARIETIES OF WHITE CORN
An 1828 seed catalog listed one variety of “modern” sweet corn. By 1881, gardeners could choose from 16 varieties. Today, there are hundreds. The great variability of the corn plant led to the selection of numerous widely adapted varieties which hardly resembled one another. The plant may have ranged from no more than a couple of feet tall to over 20 feet. It was not like the uniform sized plant that most people know today. For the Aztecs, Mayas, Incas and various Pueblo dwellers of the southwestern United States, corn growing took precedence over all other activities.
HOW TO BUY WHITE CORN
Look at the silks, which darken and dry as the ears mature. Squeeze and feel the ear through the husk to check for kernel plumpness. If an ear looks and feels ripe, then gently pull back the husk to expose a small portion of the ear. Press your thumbnail into a kernel crown to see if squirts out a milky, sweet liquid. If the fluid is clear the ear is not yet ripe, so replace the husk and check again the following day. If the fluid is thick, the ear is still edible but past its prime, so harvest and use as soon as possible.
HOW TO STORE WHITE CORN
Keeping in mind the best corn you will ever taste is that which has been picked locally from a farm on the same day it is cooked. This is not always possible so a few tips for storing corn are worth sharing. For short-term storage, leave ears in the husks and refrigerate. For longer storage, whole ears can be frozen unhusked and uncooked. Simply place them in the freezer for about 48 hours, then put them in sealable plastic bags and return to the freezer. Another method is to first remove the corn niblets with a knife. Once removed spread the niblets on a large tray and freeze for a few hours. Once frozen place them in sealable plastic bags and return to the freezer.
HOW TO PREPARE WHITE CORN
The answer to the question of how to cook corn depends how you want to best express its sweetness. In European kitchens preparation begins by removing the husk and silky skins followed by removing the niblets with a strong-bladed knife. Simply rotate the cob after each cut and repeat until all the niblets are removed. This is a common technique shared throughout Western kitchens although it tends to damage rows of niblets in the process.
A better method to remove niblets is to first pull off the husks and silky strings. Next, with a strong bladed knife cut across the width of the corn cob in 3 or 4 equally spaced places. Take one of the sections of corn firmly in one hand and hold the knife blade parallel to the rows of corn niblets. Push the length of the blade tip between one row and gradually peel off the niblets. The blade tip should sit just below the niblets as you rotate the corn section. This method requires a little more focus and skill however the result is the unbroken extraction of the corn niblets. This is the preferred method in professional Japanese kitchens and should be done with a very sharp and thin but firm bladed knife.
COOKING WHITE CORN
There are multiple ways to how to cook corn and maintain its delicious flavors. Steaming corn offers the benefit of preserving all of the original corn flavors. This is one of our favorite techniques.
STEAMING corn offers the benefit of preserving all of the original corn flavors. This is one of our favorite techniques. Steam for 15-20 minutes then allow to cool slightly before serving. Alternatively, once cooled the niblets can be removed and used in other recipes.
BOILING corn is probably the most popular method for cooking corn in the home. Remove the husks and silky strings prior to cooking. Boil for 15-20 minutes in a large stockpot filled with water then allow to cool slightly before serving. Alternatively, once cooled the niblets can be removed and used in other recipes.
GRILLING corn whole in the husk without peeling requires one critical preparatory step. At least a few hours beforehand peel the husks halfway and remove the silky strings. Replace the husks in their original position and tie a string around the top to hold them in place. Soak the whole corn cobs in a basin filled with cold water for 3 to 6 hours. This will hydrate the husks so they do not burn quick when placed on the grill. When you are ready to grill be sure the fire embers are white hot and without flames. Place the cobs on the grill and cover with a hood lid. Periodically rotate the cobs to prevent burning. They should be ready after 15 -20 minutes. The result should be juicy corn with a slight smokiness from the hot grill. This can be done successfully indoors or outdoors.
RECIPES FOR WHITE CORN
Corn is a dynamic vegetable and one that can lift the gastronomic appeal of a dish to new heights. Pairing white corn with native summer vegetables like summer squash, peppers and beans is a sensible approach as they benefit both from corn’s dynamic sweetness and its vivid color. There are also many classic dishes that can be used as a starting point that have benefitted from centuries of experimentation. Using history as your laboratory will always result in greater cooking success.
Corn is a sweet ingredient and therefore benefits from ingredients that offer contrasts to its sweetness. Keeping in mind white corn is more delicate than yellow corn, more subtle seasonings are always preferred to those with stronger tastes. For a more complex taste chop some fresh soft leaf herbs like chervil, marjoram or chives and roll the corn in it. The fresh aromatic qualities released by the herbs complement the corn and add both depth and complexity.
WHITE CORN SOUP
One of the easiest and most satisfying recipes for corn is soup. White Corn is the perfect foil for spices like smokey bacon, aromatic chive or haunting lemongrass. The key to making the white corn flavor the star is to slowly sweat it with onions before adding the stock. This not only softens the texture but removes moisture which deepens its subtle flavors.
- 400g white corn kernels removed from cobs
- 1 litre Vegetable Stock (Japanese dashi also works well)
- 1 large peeled, halved and thinly sliced white or yellow onions
- bay leaf or lemongrass
- 30 ml cream (substitute with a creamy yogurt for a lower fat option)
- In an 8-Quart Stockpot cook the sliced onions in a fruity olive oil on low heat until translucent (20-30 minutes)
- Add the white corn kernels and cook a further 5 minutes
- Pour the vegetable stock & cream over the onions and corn.
- Cook over low heat for 40 minutes.
- Once the vegetables are cooked transfer the contents to a food processor and blend to a smooth and even paste. Add more vegetable stock if the mixture is too thick and season to taste. Alternatively use an Immersion Hand Blender to blend the soup in the stock pot. Pass the soup through a strainer for a finer texture.
- Ladle the hot soup into wide-mouth bowls or cups.
This corn soup can be made a day in advance and served hot or cold depending on the weather. For an aromatic version of this soup add chunks of grilled or sauteéd scallops along with ribbons of marjoram. Alternatively, for a luxurious version add freshly chopped garden chives and a drizzle of white truffle oil. Finally, if you happen to located near the ocean, check the morning fish market for a fresh catch of shrimp. Grilled shrimp with a fine chiffonade (cut in thin strips) of basil or shiso would be a fantastic way to celebrate all that is beautiful about late summer and its timely harvest offering of succulent white corn,