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Corn : GARDEN FRESH : Corn of Many Colors

July 01, 1993|SYLVIA THOMPSON

To most Americans, and most people around the world, corn is either yellow or white. If they only knew what they're missing--corn is the world's most colorful grain. For thousands of years American Indians have harvested kernels of many colors, and varieties with stripes and speckles and ombres.

The corn cob begins as a flower stalk, with florets that will develop into kernels. Even when the kernels reach the "milk" stage (when a pierced kernel will spurt a milky substance), almost all varieties of corn are pale. But as the kernels mature, they deepen in color, some magnificently. Most don't reach their glory until thoroughly mature--that is, bone-dry.

After the colors bloom, you must decide what to do with your gaudy harvest. Grind kernels into meal? Turn them into hominy? Pop and butter them hot? There are several types of corn, classed according to the starch in the kernels. Each type has adapted to a particular function.

The type I find most exciting is flour corn. At the milk stage, ears are good roasted or the kernels can go into fresh tamales. Dried, the kernels are almost completely soft starch, and they easily grind into meal and beautiful flour. They make good hominy as well.

This morning I made exquisite corncakes with flour from Mandan Bride corn, a glorious mix of colors: garnet, mauve, lavender, purple, navy, cranberry, persimmon, chocolate, peach, butter, cream and swirls, as if from a Santa Fe sunset. Together, they grind to grayish meal with myriad specks of color.

Kernels of dent corn have soft, starchy centers and hard sides--as the two parts dry unequally, a dimple dents the kernel's crown. Bloody Butcher is a 150-year-old dent from Virginia--crimson red kernels with dark-red stripes on pink/red cobs. Easy-growing dents may be used the same as flour corns.

The hard kernels of flint corn contain little soft starch, but their advantage is that many tolerate cool soil, and they mature early--a boon where summers are short. And flints store best of all. Most colorful flints listed by seedsmen are for decoration. But Native Seeds/SEARCH offers flints in luminous colors gathered from remote areas of Mexico. Most are untested, so growing them is an adventure.

Popcorn is akin to flint corn, having hard kernels with no soft starch, and it is considered the most ancient of cultivated corns. The ears are small, but they can be drenched with color, as with the enchanting little strawberry popcorn. I've long been partial to Cochiti Pueblo, with many of the colors of Mandan Bride. The sad thing is that when you pop colorful corn, it comes out white, with maybe a dash of color in the throat. At least the kernels are marvelous to look at in a jar. Popcorn kernels are particularly delicious lightly toasted (four to five minutes in a moderate oven), then ground into meal.

Over time, every native community in every region has adopted the corns that grew best for it and gave the community what it needed. Some corns have been bred that produce flour ears next to flint ears on the stalk--and cobs with soft flour kernels next to hard flint kernels--maybe even some dents thrown in. Thus, no matter what the elements bring, there's precious corn.

Flour, dent, flint and popcorn are called field corn, a rugged term that indicates that most haven't lost their ability to cope with poor soil and drought. Their pampered offspring, a Johnny-come-lately, is sweet corn. Sweet corn has wrinkled seeds without starch--its sugar not yet converted to starch. That's why, with old-fashioned cultivars, you must have the kettle boiling before you pick the ears--sugar begins converting to starch the instant the cob leaves the stalk. Most sweet corns are grown for eating in the milk stage, but many cultivars turn colorful when dried and they can be ground for tasty meal. Hooker's Sweet Indian is one such variety. With a flavor many regard as the finest of all old-fashioned sweet corns, kernels at the milk stage are white and light-yellow. As they mature, they turn purple, then blue-black.

You can sow corn in spring as soon as the soil temperature reaches 65 degrees, and you can keep on sowing for dried corn until about 100 days before autumn's first expected frost. A happy thing about corn seeds is that the later you sow them, the faster they move. Now is a perfect time to sow something like Hooker's that you can enjoy at every stage. Or, if your season's short, sow Mandan Bride, which prospers in cooler climates.

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