Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fall CORN-ucopia--Putting Up the Bounty

Well, I feel terrible about how I have neglected my blog. But, hey, Charlie will only be little once! He recently turned 15 months old and is walking and into everything. Even so, I am beginning to have a glimmer more of free time, especially now that Harry is back in school for the fall, so I thought I would share with you one of my recent end-of-summer activities.

I used to joke that I was a Grandma before I became a Mom. That is because I love to make things from scratch, whether it be food or something handknit or sewn, or even soap. I like to cook, especially baking pies and cookies, and I love to "put things up."

To me, putting things up represents distilling the summer down to its essence and preserving it to savor in the winter when you feel cabin fever setting in. And it is so much more! There is the money savings, of course and the idea of the sustainability of buying local food in season--and there is also the incredible TASTE! If I have a choice between an insipid grocery store tomato in January, or my own homegrown tomatoes out of the freezer, there is seriously no contest.

There is no doubt that this represents work to most people. But I don't really see it that way. I think that for the most part it is fun to do this kind of stuff, unless one is pressed for time (which I seriously am these days, but I managed nonetheless). And over the years I have developed ways of putting things up that have become easy and familiar. I have made jam countless times, trying all different variations but we always come back to strawberry as our very favorite so nowadays I rarely make any other kind.

We used to go giddily picking (and eating) as many berries as we could manage in the morning and then make jam all afternoon, listening to the lids pop shut under the vacuum seals well into the evening and having our own jam for most of the next year. Sadly, the berry patch we went to closed a couple of years ago and we haven't managed to find another yet.

There have been many, many batches of apple-butter. Often made in the crock pot these days because its so much easier, even if it takes a lot longer. These days we make ours sugar-free with premium cinnamon from specialty spice-shops and it is a pure distillation of fall. I hope I get a chance to share that with you!

We have made our own salsa. I'll never forget how my hands burned for hours afterwards from chopping jalapenos. A rookie mistake. If we can salsa again, I will wear gloves when I chop the peppers and anything used to wipe the counter will go straight into the washer so it doesn't re-contaminate every surface with capsaicin over and over.

Sometimes I can things (preserving them in jars, safe at room temp--very specialized equiptment and procedures) and sometimes I freeze things. Depends on the food and what is best for it--or what I have time for. Recently I bought 5 dozen ears of corn and put it up in the freezer. And this is how I did it:

First there is the shucking. For the first 3 dozen (a farmer's dozen can often be as many as 14-15 ears of corn when the farmer is generous!), I had help. Mitch and Harry sat outside and spent an hour shucking, which I'm told was a very enjoyable experience for them. Harry didn't want to stop! The last two dozen I did separately myself when I found the time about a week later. Each dozen took me about an hour from shucking to freezer and clean-up. Here is a sink full of the corn husks, ready to head to the compost pile.

And here is the best equiptment I've found that will minimize the mess you might tend to make, if you are like me. A 9 x 13 baking dish with a small bar cutting board in the bottom and a sharp chefs knive--ours is the made-in-the-USA LamsonSharp, which has held up remarkably well lo these many years since I found Food Network and realized there was soooooo much more to cooking! This set-up contains most of the flying nibblets (wouldn't that make a great name for a band? The Flying Nibblets!) and also captures the corn starch.

Ever wondered about cream-style corn? Is there cream in creamed corn? Nope. Shouldn't be. The secret to creamed corn is corn starch. I discovered this all on my own and then verified it later. You slice the corn off of the cob--that is pretty straighforward, of course (just make sure you don't cut too deep and get the gnarly bits where the corn actually attatches to the cob).

But when you take it to the next step, that is where doing it yourself really pays off. After you hack off the nibblets, you can see that there are decapitated corny units there oozing with sweet corny goodness. If you were eating the corn straight from the cob, you would be scraping those out with your teeth. But since you are trying to save that flavor for later in the year, you slice off the nibblets, then turn the knive OVER and use the back of the knive to scrape down the cob, a process I hearby coin "milking the cob" since what comes out is milky, starchy stuff that thickens when its cooked and tastes awesome--homemade creamed corn, ya'all! You won't find that in a bag in frozen foods at the grocery store!

Here are some cut and milked cobs. Looks the same as if folks had eaten them straight off the cob, no?

Here is a shot of the corn after I'm done with the knife. You can see the liquid starch at the bottom and the mound of starchy stuff scraped off the cob.

Here it is bagged up and ready for the freezer. One dozen ears fills a gallon freezer bag about half full. Then I spread it out and lay it flat to make it freeze faster and more uniformly (even distribution of niblets and starch) and to facilitate breaking it up into chunks later.

When I'm ready to serve it, I bang the package against the counter and break off some chunks. Plop them in a saucepan with a teeny amount of water to prevent burning and turn the saucepan on low, going back occasionally to break up the bits. Once it comes to a boil and thickens, its done. You could also use the microwave, I suppose. I don't do much cooking in the micro, mainly reheating.

Other corny fun facts: When Mitch was in China a few years ago, the locals were drinking a bevarage they called corn milk, or something like that. Mitch tasted it and said it was surprisingly good. Like liquid. . . corn. I guess Americans don't corner the market on turning veggies into weird desserty things like pumpkin pie and carrot cake. Although corn is technically a grain, I suppose.

One more fun corn story. I used to work at a local, family owned greenhouse. I managed the store and in the spring we would sell bulk seeds for home gardeners including many varieties of sweet corn. There was an older gentleman that came in one day and decided he would test my knowlege of sweet corn. He asked me what the three best varieties of sweet corn were. I replied that that was certainly subjective and that I didn't have direct experience since I had a small home garden myself and no room for a large corn plot. He decided to educate me and told me his three favorites.

Then, every time he came in, which was weekly, he would quiz me. After a few weeks of this it was getting to be pretty funny and I was feeling a little saucy and greeted him with, "Hey, Bodacious!" (which was one of the three variety names.) I learned later that his wife was with him, a rarity, and she thought it was hilarious. From that time on, this gentleman came in asking for Sugar Buns (another one of his favorite varieties of sweet corn). It is my understanding that he still asks about me (referring to me as Sugar Buns) to this day, even though I left there to have Harry almost 7 years ago!
So, try it yourself, if you can. The sweet corns they have now are outrageously sweet. The corn I used here was a bicolor corn, but I'm not sure of the variety name. I'll call it just plain GOOD!