Riddle: Beaded, her head is high and she sleeps in a shawl. Guess who she is.
Answer: A corn cob (from "A Book of Middle Eastern Food" by Claudia Roden).
While roasted corn is a popular snack sold by street vendors of the Middle- and Far-East and Southeast Asia, it is also the all-American vegetable. It originated in North America, is grown in every state of the United States, and American farmers grow more than half of all the corn in the world.
Not only is corn a mainstay of barbecues and picnics and New England clambakes and practically every other summer activity all over the country, but without corn the U.S. might not have developed as we know it. The early English settlers in Virginia and New England were saved from starvation by maize given to them by the Indians during their first winters, when they literally stood "amid the alien corn." They named the life-saving grain Indian corn.
The species of sweet corn that we eat is Zea mays, though there are many other varieties, all divided into "races" by botanists. The kernels may be yellow, white, blue, black, purple, even red. It was Cotton Mather who wrote the first scientific book on corn hybridization in the early 18th century, and since that time continual hybridizing has made corn sweeter and tastier.
For good eating, sweet corn should be picked while still "green" and cooked immediately, before the sugar turns to starch, a process that begins as soon as the corn is cut from the stem. Choose cobs with their pale green stems moist and their green husks tightly closed. Carefully pull back the husks to examine the kernels, which should be tender and plump. Gentle pressure should cause them to spurt a milky, not watery, fluid. Refrigerate as soon as possible or use immediately.
In the old days, corn was boiled for 30 minutes or longer, but now cooks believe that 5 minutes or even less in a large pot of boiling salted water is sufficient to set the milk. Corn can also be steamed or cooked in the husks in a microwave oven for about 2 minutes.
For the best flavor, roast ears of corn in their husks on a charcoal grill. To prepare them, pull back but do not detach the husks and remove all the silk. Put plain butter or garlic or herb butter inside, if desired, and replace the husks, twisting the ends to seal the corn. Soak the ears in water for about 20 minutes, a precaution that prevents them from drying out but is not absolutely necessary.
Some cooks wrap them in foil and place them directly on the coals. But for the charcoal flavor and the charred spots that taste so good, place the corn unwrapped on the grill racks or even on the coals in the fashion of the street vendors of the Middle East and Asia. Either way, turn the ears frequently for about 20 minutes or until done. At the beach, corn can be roasted on a charcoal fire built in a pit dug in the sand.
Since the days when Montezuma dined on tortillas and tamales, still staples in the Mexican diet, innumerable fresh corn, dried corn and cornmeal dishes (corn pones, sticks, muffins and bread, hush puppies, cornmeal mush, corn pudding and fritters, hominy, corn soup and chowder, succotash and corn relish, corn pie filled with chicken, polenta and many more) have developed in countries all over the world. Dried corn husks are used to wrap tamales and fresh husks make good wrappers for cooking small fish directly on hot embers.
When recipes call for fresh corn kernels, stand the ear on its end or lay it on its side and cut the kernels from the cob with a sharp knife. Then with a dull knife, scrape the cob to release the milk. Three medium ears yield about one cup of kernels.
People have been eating corn since maize began growing on North American soil at least 8,000 years ago, though the strawberry-size cobs barely resembled the best Iowa produces today. Botanists debate the origin of the maize plant, which is a grass that has no known living wild form. Corn must be cultivated since it cannot reproduce itself.
Domestication of this ancient corn ancestor, believed to have started in Mexico in the region between Puebla and Oaxaca sometime between 7000 and 5000 B.C., ended the nomadic wanderings of the Indians and permitted the great empires of the Mayas and Aztecs in Mexico and the settled life of the Indians in the American Southwest and the Mississippi Valley.
So important was the sacred corn to the survival of the Indians that they erected temples and held annual festivals to honor the deities of the maize. The Aztecs worshiped Chicomecoatl, the goddess of the seven ears of corn, who is represented holding double ears of corn in both hands. The people compared the stages of the development of an ear of corn to the stages of a woman's life. In her form as Xilonen, Chicomecoatl was pictured as a young woman, corresponding to the young and tender green ear of corn. As Ilamatecuhtli, she was the dry ear, called metaphorically "the lady of the old skirt."
In the Aztec creation myth, the god of life known as Quetzalcoatl, the "plumed serpent," who created humanity out of his own blood, was responsible for feeding the new people. So he turned himself into a black ant to steal a grain of maize that the red ants had hidden inside "Sustenance Mountain." In that way, legend has it, maize became the basic subsistence crop of the Indians, which they ate in the form of gruel and tortillas.
Columbus wrote about corn, which he called a "sort of grain," in his journal of 1492, and, in fact, corn is a generic term for grain in many countries. By 1525, corn was grown in Spain and traveled a circuitous route from there to the Middle East, to Africa, to China, back to Europe and finally to England where "turkey wheat," as it was named by then, was grown there in the 1560s. After that there was no stopping the development and the popularity of this versatile vegetable.
Since it is so easy to boil or roast the abundant fresh corn for supper and since corn tastes so delicious simply cooked, many people never think of preparing fresh corn any other way. But the effort of removing the kernels from the cob and combining them with eggs, milk or other vegetables is worth the discovery that dressed-up corn tastes so good. Here are recipes for using fresh corn in some inventive ways. The first, from Elizabeth Ellicot Lea's "A Quaker Woman's Cookbook," was written in 1845. She intended to help young wives cope with household chores and meal preparation by sharing her experience. Her recipe for corn fritters, a classic American dish, suggests what early American cooking was like. We have not tested it. Corn Fritters
Pick out ears near the same size. Cut the corn through the grain, and with a knife scrape the pulp from the cob, or grate it with a coarse grater, and to about a quart of the pulp add two eggs beaten, two tablespoonsful of flour, a little salt and pepper, and a small portion of thin cream, or new milk; beat the whole together; have the butter or lard hot in the pan, and put a large spoonful in at a time, and fry brown, turning each fritter separately; this makes an agreeable relish for breakfast, or a good side dish at dinner.
-- From "The Quaker Woman's Cookbook; "The Domestic Cookery of Elizabeth Ellicot Lea," (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982) PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH CHICKEN CORN SOUP (4 servings)
3 pounds chicken parts
3 quarts boiling water
Salt and pepper to taste
1 onion, chopped
28-ounce can tomatoes, drained
1/2 pound broad noodles
2 cups fresh corn kernels
1/2 cup chopped parsley
Place chicken in a dutch oven. Add water, salt, pepper and onion. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 1 1/2 hours or until tender. Strain stock and return to pan. Skin and bone chicken and add meat to stock. Add tomatoes, and noodles. Cook 5 minutes. Add corn and cook 5 minutes or until noodles are tender. Stir in parsley. CORN AND FETA CHEESE OMELET (4 servings)
In her book "Food For Friends," (Harper & Row, 1984) Barbara Kafka suggests serving corn and feta cheese omelets as a first course at dinner. Jalapeno pepper and coriander would "jazz this up," she says.
4 tablespoons butter
2 cups, peeled, seeded, chopped tomatoes
2 cups fresh corn kernels
1 cup sliced scallions
1 teaspoon coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
6 ounces (1 1/2 cups) feta cheese
12 large eggs
Heat butter in a skillet and add tomato. Cook over moderate heat 3 minutes or until tomatoes begin to give off liquid. Add corn, scallions, salt and pepper and cook 1 minute over low heat. Remove the pan from heat and stir in cheese. Use the mixture to make 4 3-egg omelets in a 9-inch skillet, one at a time. Before folding them over, spoon in some of the filling. Slide the folded omelets onto plates. Spoon a little remaining filling over the tops. CUBAN CORN PIE (6 servings)
Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz includes this recipe for Pastel de Maiz, a specialty of Cuba in "The Complete Book of Caribbean Cooking" (M. Evans, 1973). For variety, she suggests substituting lean boneless pork cut in 1 -- inch cubes and simmered until tender, for the chicken.
16 ears corn
8 tablespoons butter
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon sugar
4 egg yolks
FOR THE FILLING:
2 1/2 pounds chicken
2 tablespoons oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 pounds tomatoes, peeled, seeded, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon seedless raisins
1 tablespoon chopped pimiento-stuffed olives
1 tablespoon capers
12 pitted prunes, plumped in hot water and drained
2 hard-cooked eggs, sliced
Cut the kernels from the ears of corn and pure'e in a blender or food processor. (There will be about 4 cups.) In a heavy saucepan heat butter, add corn, salt and sugar and cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture thickens, about 20 minutes. Cool slightly and beat in egg yolks.
Poach chicken in water to cover about 45 minutes or until tender. Cool, remove skin and bones and cut meat into bite-size pieces. Heat oil in a heavy skillet and saute' onions until tender but not brown. Add tomatoes and cook until thick. Season with salt and pepper. Add chicken, raisins, olives, capers and prunes.
Line a 2-quart souffle' dish with 2/3 of the corn mixture, patting it up the sides of the dish with the fingers. Pour in the chicken mixture, top with the eggs and cover with remaining corn mixture. Bake in a 350-degree oven about 45 minutes. CORN MAQUE CHOUX (10 to 12 servings)
In his book "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen,"(Morrow, 1984) the chef writes that his mother served her version of this dish, one for which every Cajun family has its own recipe, with rice and gravy. The heat from the corn, he says, "is ample to do everything necessary to the eggs to give the dish a rich, frothy texture."
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup vegetable oil
7 cups fresh corn kernels (about seventeen 8-inch cobs)
1 cup very finely chopped onions
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 1/4 cups chicken, beef or pork stock
4 tablespoons margarine
1 cup evaporated milk
In a large skillet combine butter and oil with corn, onions, sugar, white pepper, salt and cayenne. Cook over high heat until corn is tender and starch starts to form a crust on the pan bottom, about 12 to 14 minutes, stirring occasionally and stirring more as mixture starts sticking. Gradually stir in 1 cup of the stock, scraping the pan bottom to remove crust. Continue cooking 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add margarine, stir until melted and cook 5 minutes, stirring frequently and scraping pan bottom as needed. Reduce heat to low and cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add 1/4 cup stock and cook 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Add remaining cup stock and cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in 1/2 cup of the milk and continue cooking until most of the liquid is absorbed, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.
In a bowl combine eggs and remaining 1/2 cup milk. Beat with a whisk until very frothy, about 1 minute. Add to corn, stirring well. Serve immediately, allowing about 1/2 cup per person. DESSERT CORN PUDDING (4 servings)
This recipe for pudin de elote is from an old Sunset Mexican cookbook. The pudding puffs up like a souffle' and falls quickly. Unauthentic toppings are sweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
1 cup fresh corn kernels (about 2 or 3 ears)
3 eggs, separated
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon salt
Whirl or pure'e corn in a blender or food processor with egg yolks. Add sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and salt. Beat egg whites until they hold short, distinct peaks. Fold in corn mixture. Pour into a buttered 1-quart dish. Bake in a 375-degree oven 25 to 30 minutes or until top feels quite firm when tapped lightly. Serve immediately. SOPA VERDE DE ELOTE (6 servings)
This is an unusual soup, which Diana Kennedy translated from a Mexican cookbook and published in her own cookbook, "Recipes From the Regional Cooks of Mexico." (Harper & Row, 1978). She suggests using frozen corn, measured before it defrosts, if you cannot get very tender corn. The soup freezes well, though it should be blended a few seconds before heating and serving.
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 medium onion, finely chopped
2 small cloves garlic, finely chopped
2/3 cup cooked tomatillos
4 1/2 cups fresh corn kernels
5 cups chicken broth
2/3 cup fresh or frozen green peas
4 large sprigs fresh coriander
2 small chilies poblanos, charred and peeled, or canned, peeled green chilies to taste
3 large romaine lettuce leaves
Salt to taste
6 tablespoons sour cream, for garnish
Crisp fried tortilla pieces or chops, for garnish
In a large saucepan, melt butter and fry onion and garlic, without browning, until soft. Pure'e tomatillos, add to pan and fry over high heat, for 3 minutes, stirring constantly.
Pure'e corn kernels ( 1/3 at a time) with 2 cups of the chicken broth and the peas, coriander, chilies and the lettuce leaves until smooth. Pass this pure'e through the medium disk of a food mill. Add to pan and cook over moderate heat 3 minutes, stirring and scraping bottom of pan constantly since mixture tends to stick.
Add remaining broth and salt and cook over low heat until soup thickens, about 20 minutes. Serve in soup bowls and top with spoonsful of cream and a sprinkling of tortilla pieces. BLUE CORN TORTILLAS (Makes 8 tortillas)
In her award-winning "American Folklife Cookbook,"(Schocken, 1984, $18.95) Washington writer Joan Nathan suggest using blue corn tortillas for chicken or meat enchiladas or as an hors d'oeurves topped with melted cheese and sausage or just eating them with butter.
14 ears blue corn or 2 cups ground blue corn meal (available in Spanish groceries)
Dash of salt
1 teaspoon flour
1 cup warm water
Lard or shortening for frying
Husk corn and cut kernels from cob. Toast on a cookie sheet in a 350-degree oven, stirring frequently, until corn turns golden, 5 to 8 minutes.
Grind with a meat grinder or in a food processor. Stir in salt and flour. Add water all at once and mix thoroughly. Let stand 20 minutes. Knead and divide into 8 egg-shaped pieces. Roll out 1/8- 1/4-inch thick.
Place on a hot griddle with a dash of lard or shortening and fry like a pancake 2 to 3 minutes on each side. Cool.
Alternately, you can make the tortillas on a press. Place a piece of plastic wrap on the bottom of the press. Insert the ball of dough, cover with another sheet of plastic and press. You can freeze the tortillas between pieces of waxed paper. Defrost and reheat on the griddle. SUCCOTASH (4 to 6 servings)
In "Square Meals" (Knopf, 1984, $17.95), Jane and Michael Stern chronicle American cooking from the 1820s to the 1850s and include succotash in the chapter on diner classics, attributing the dish's bad reputation to the fact that it is usually prepared with canned vegetables. Cook it with fresh ingredients, they say, and even though "it will look just like deluxe succotash at the Acme Diner . . . watch your guests' faces turn from grouchy reluctance to astonished pleasure when they dip into it and discover otherwise."
1 thick slice bacon or blanched salt pork
2 cups cooked fresh lima beans
2 cups fresh corn kernels
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup cream
Salt and pepper to taste
4 tablespoons chopped pimientos, optional
Dice bacon and cook in a large skillet until crisp. Add drained lima beans and heat. Add corn and stir. Add butter and cream. Stir over low heat 5 minutes. Add salt, pepper and pimiento. CORN SPOON BREAD (8 to 10 servings)
Ellen Brown, author of "Cooking With The New American Chefs," (Harper & Row, 1985) says this cornbread is lighter and fluffier than traditional American corn spoon breads. It is a specialty of chef Bradley Ogden of the Campton Place Hotel in San Francisco.
4 cups water
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 1/2 cups stoneground yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
7 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 cup fresh corn kernels
Simmer water, salt, butter and pepper in a heavy 2-quart saucepan. Slowly add cornmeal, whisking to ensure that no lumps form. Cook over low heat 3 minutes, whisking constantly. Turn off heat and add buttermilk slowly, stirring. Add eggs, then cream and corn. Butter a 10-by-14-inch baking pan and pour in mixture. Bake in a 400-degree oven 35 to 45 minutes or until bread is set and top is brown. To serve, scoop out with an ice cream scoop or serving spoon.