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 V.21 No.47 | November 22 - 28, 2012 

Food for Thought

Beyond King Corn

In search of maize redemption

America's love affair with corn is largely over. Thanks to the industrial farm complex and government subsidies, the corporate, cash crop version of King Corn, god of ancient civilizations, is no longer regal but thuggish and tyrannical, polluting our ecosystems with fertilizers and occupying as much land nationally as New York State. He's a sneaky bastard, finding his way into almost every grocery item by way of oil, syrup, starch and, indirectly, through corn-fed animal products. He can also be a buck-toothed clod, making a damp showing on cafeteria plates.

I propose we forget about that guy. He’s a killjoy and doesn’t represent the diverse world of corna world where stalks can grow between two and 20 feet high; ears range in size from salad forks to golf clubs; and kernels span the color wheel in saffron, pomegranate, mauve, rose, black and lavender. This is not some crazy hayseed fantasia: According to Boone Halberg, corn expert and botanist, the mountain valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico, alone may boast some 85,000 varieties of maize.

If Thanksgiving is partially about commemorating wild, lush, pre-European America, then it's only fitting to place the heirloom varieties of maize center stage.

And finally, we're waxing poetic about corn because it is a regional point of pride. New Mexico is the northernmost edge of the mighty corn cultures of yore. Maize has been cultivated here for 6,000 years. (That's a 5,000 year jump on the indigenous tribes of the eastern U.S. seaboard.) And the Pueblo and Hopi tribes of this region were damn good at it. That means you can skip the corn-centric Oaxacan vacation you were planning since two paragraphs ago, and get your heirloom and exotic corn right here at home.

Blue Corn

This varietal, sacred to the Pueblo people, is visually stunning, nutritious, and sweeter and nuttier than other corn ground for meal. In the vegetable world, deep, vibrant colors like blue are good indicators of healthfulness. According to a Mexican study released in 2007, blue corn is higher in lysine, iron and zinc than white or yellow corn.

Blue corn derives its hue from anthocyanin, the same pigment found in blueberries, Concord grapes and violet petals. Anthocyanin's color is susceptible to alteration by pH; acidic conditions will render it pink. Basic conditions will keep it true blue. Native peoples used to mix alkaline ash from juniper or chamisa into the meal to protect its color.

We've all seen blue corn at the grocery store in the guise of chips and tortillas, or ground to a powdery meal. That's because blue corn is too coarse to eat straight from the cob, though you can find blue corn posole (also called hominy, corn that has been hulled by boiling in lye) in local stores.

Felix Mauro Torres, owner of Southwest Heritage Mill and one such purveyor of blue hominy, was my go-to man for all things blue corn. Torres is revamping his Indio-Hispano Native Foods LLC into an organic, non-GMO corn milling and roasting business. He now works primarily with organic blue corn from Sunny State Products in San Jon, N.M.

Come January, Torres hopes to introduce a product line that includes blue corn chocolate chip cookies, blue corn sopaipillas, batter mixes, and three textures of corn meal under the Southwest Heritage Mill label. You can already find a few of his products as well as local blue and red corn products from Los Chileros de Nuevo Mexico around town.

Torres works with red, white, yellow and blue kernels but says that blue is the kind that really stands out for its earthy, hearty profile. Roasting imparts an intoxicatingly nutty flavor. He invited me to visit his mill and roasted a batch of blue corn while I was there. The aroma was heavenly, if heaven can be experienced while wearing a hair net and earplugs.

If Thanksgiving is partially about commemorating wild, lush, pre-European America, then it's only fitting to place the heirloom varieties of maize center stage.

If you're looking for blue corn hot spots in town, there are a few humdingers. Pueblo Harvest Cafe offers several distinct blue corn dishes, from atolea muted purple cornmeal porridge with a robust fresh-off-the-farm flavorto “black and blue” pancakes (laden with blackberries and blueberries) to blue corn-crusted onion rings.

Michael Geise, head chef at Pueblo Harvest, likes blue corn meal for its vibrant color and novelty appeal. He says the blue corn chile relleno is one of the cafe’s top sellers. Across town, Cool Water Fusion's blue corn-crusted fried chicken slathered in a honey chipotle glaze is also racking up devotees.

If you want your breakfast blue and savory, you can order up some blue corn hotcakes loaded with green chile, cheddar and piñon nuts with maple syrup on the side at Ropers (on Central just east of Wyoming.) And of course the blue corn pancakes with piñon butter at Sophia's Place (on Fourth Street) are famous.

Heirloom Popcorn

Popcorn is distinct from other types of maize in that it has a waterproof hull and hard endosperm (the starchy inside) that can withstand high applications of heatuntil suddenly it can't. The steam inside explodes, essentially blowing the kernel inside-out. Some of the oldest known popcorn in the world was found right here in New Mexico on an archeological dig of what is known as Bat Cave in Catron County. Thrown into hot oil, 5,000 years later, the kernels still popped.

Popcorn is the oldest type of maize, so its diversity is off the charts. If you want to spend post-prandial snack time over the holidays eating flavorless microwave popcorn with butter and salt and toxic perfluorooctanoic acid leeched from the bag lining, be my guest. Actually, no, I un-invite you. I will be at home digging my mitts into one of the recherché delights from a local company like Crown Jewel or the Colorado-grown Boulder Popcorn (both available for purchase online).

Crown Jewel, an Albuquerque-based mail-order company, takes walk-ins from locals at the store on Venice Ave. It offers 14 multi-colored varietals named after precious stonesPurple Amethyst, Red Ruby, White Diamond to name a few. Petite Princess Amber is the world’s smallest popcorn, described by Crown Jewel owner Marc Moore as “light and flavorful … It just melts in your mouth.” If you’re a gourmet popcorn novice, Moore recommends ordering the sampler pack.

Unlike big-gun popcorn from Orville Redenbacher and Jolly Time, these varietals are bred for flavor rather than poppability and large expansion ratio. A good, flavorful popcorn doesn’t need a lot of condimental support, says Moore. He also says that he considers commercial popcorn “fit for packing material and little else.” He’s proud that Crown Jewel sources only from small, responsible farms in the Corn Belt.

Quadequina, brother of Chief Massasoit, came bearing popcorn in a deer skin bag to the original Thanksgiving feast, by the way. So it’s fitting to experiment with popcorn this weekend.

Chicos

One of our regional delicacies long ago fell into obscurity for all but dyed-in-the-wool New Mexicans. Chicos received some press of late that put them back on the locavore radar, and now you can find them at grower's markets, La Montanita Co-op, Lowe’s Market and Albertsons.

Chicos are kernels of sweet corn or concho (a native variety of corn) that has been boiled or roasted then dried.

Peter Casados Jr., owner of Casados Farms near San Juan Pueblo, sells pre-packaged chicos at Albertsons and Lowe’s produced by both methods. The first method involves boiling the corn and drying it on wire racks. The second is the traditional method that Casados prefers. He handpicks and husks his green corn in mid-September, then packs it like bricks in a piping-hot horno. After throwing in some water, Casados seals the mouth of the horno with mud and adobe and lets it slow roast overnight. The corn is removed in the morning and dried for up to a month on wire racks. Finally, the kernels are removed and the chaff sifted out, leaving nothing but swoon-worthy, smoky, amber-brown kernels.

Casados, whose family has lived in New Mexico for 400 years, prefers concho to sweet corn and roasting to boiling. “Chicos should be salty,” he says. They’re the perfect addition to stews (preferably with some pork, onions and red chile) where they plump up into toothsome little morsels (smoked chicos expand a little but don’t pop). Casados insists chico dishes taste better the second day, as the flavors steep and deepen.

The labor-intensive process of making authentic chicos means they’ll cost you a pretty penny (between $14 and $17 per pound), but you get a lot of bang for the buck: sweet, summery roasted corn bang or smoky bang, depending on the choice of corn and the method of cooking. What more could you want in the middle of winter?

Casados invited me to come visit the farm next fall in the evening when the hornos are lit, sealed, packed to the gills with corn and glowing a deep orange. At one time all the families in northeastern New Mexico roasted their own stash for the winter, Casados says.

Corn redemption is possible: A handsome turkey full of blue cornbread stuffing, a starter course of chico stew, purple and red hulled popcorn for the game. Kick that can of corn to where the sun don’t shine, and hit the local stores instead.

 
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