Sweet, Sweet Corn
Sweet corn looks like it would be easy to grow, and it kind of is. But there are lots of reasons why things might not go well along the way. With several patches planted for this year’s enjoyment, some will look better than others, but they will all be awesome on your plate. Corn is a big seed that grows fast, making it easy to get started and keep the weeds cultivated away around it. That’s the easy part. As the plant approaches sexual maturity, that’s when things get interesting—go figure. If you read Elmwood’s enewsletter sent on July 12, I mentioned that corn is complicated to grow. This newsletter explains why.
Let’s begin with corn's genetic potential, since so much of what happens is a result of different varieties' traits. Of the corn you see while you're driving down the road, 99.99% is varieties grown for maximum yield of dry, hard grain for livestock feed, ethanol or one of thousands of processed foods or plastics. (Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference between those finished products.). The lion's share—about 90%, according to the US Department of Agriculture—is genetically modified for chemical compatibility with herbicides and insecticides.
Back in the day, farmers would pull the immature grain-crop ears, called roasting ears, to eat fresh. It was so well liked, research and breeding programs were established to develop corn just for people to enjoy. While selecting for certain traits, like sweetness, flavor, ear size, etc., sweet corn stormed onto the scene, and Silver Queen was born. Now there are thousands of sweet-corn varieties to choose from, even genetically altered ones (but organic is always non-GMO). Elmwood Stock Farm grows “supersweet” varieties, bred like Silver Queen, so the sugars do not rapidly convert to starch after picking, but we also look for good husk coverage to protect the ear from insects and birds, cold tolerance for early plantings, and flavor.
Enough about the parents. Pubescence of the maturing crop is where the action is. If you did not know, or a refresher for long-time CSA members, it always starts with biology. When the plant reaches sexual maturity, the tassel at the top–the male part of the flower—sheds millions of pollen grains, which can be airborne for miles. The female portion of the flower is the ear, with silks that extend into the air to catch the falling pollen. Each silk is actually a tube that must catch a pollen grain, then migrate it through to the cob to fertilize the zygote, forming a kernel. Each kernel has its own silk. If these silks are damaged, a kernel will not be formed. In a perfect world—or with numerous applications of highly toxic insecticides or genetic manipulations—every kernel will develop. Below are some of the things that can disrupt our perfect world.
· In extremely hot, dry weather, the silks can dry out and shrivel up, closing off the tube.
· There are many silk-clipping insects—Japanese beetles, June bugs, corn rootworms, corn earworms, to name a few. These pests like the fresh, tender silks, attacking them where they emerge from the husk and effectively cutting the tube in half so the pollen cannot travel to the awaiting egg. Some insects emit a pheromone that attracts others, so often you will see upwards of 10 beetles on one ear, with none on the adjoining stalks.
· Corn earworm larvae and numerous little, black beetles burrow through the husk to get to the tasty corn morsels once they have formed.
· Blackbirds may come in droves, pecking through silks to get the sweet, tender, developing kernels. This not only tatters the tips but opens them up to aforementioned marauders. We often hang birds-eye balloons on 12- to 15-foot poles to act as scarecrows and have figured out that Mylar happy-birthday balloons work just as well.
If that's not enough, every corn patch must be protected from raccoons, skunks, deer and coyotes (yes, coyotes) with temporary, electric-net fencing. Otherwise there would be no corn, not just tattered or insect-damaged corn.
newsletter, there seems to be less pestilence on our farm after 12 to 15 years of employing organic practices, including less insect pressure on the silks. We expect some of the harvest will lack pollination at the tip—a very small portion of the ear, but this year's second patch, which we're harvesting this week, seems picture perfect, with a few exceptions.
Whether it is full to the tip or not, it is the best corn you will ever have access to: free of pesticide residues; unsupportive of gene-transfer technologies; frustrating but not harmful to wildlife. This is confirmation that organic farming can be a perfect world, and it is really sweet to see. —Mac Stone
In Your Share
Green Bell Pepper
Lemony Green Beans With Almond Breadcrumbs, adapted from The Kitchn
This is a light, healthy take on traditional, heavy green-bean casserole.
½ c. blanched and slivered almonds
6 T. extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 garlic clove, minced
½ c. breadcrumbs
zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 T. finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
salt & pepper
1 ½ lb. green beans, trimmed
Lightly toast almonds in a skillet over medium heat. Let cool, then transfer to a food processor and grind to the consistency of breadcrumbs.
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add almonds, breadcrumbs, garlic and lemon zest and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant and golden. Remove from heat and stir in parsley. Set aside.
Place lemon juice in a small bowl and slowly whisk in the remaining olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add green beans and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Drain green beans, return to the pot, and toss with the lemon juice and olive oil vinaigrette.
Arrange green beans on a platter, drizzling with vinaigrette left at the bottom of the pot. Sprinkle almond and breadcrumb mixture on top.
Baked Summer Squash Fries, adapted Damn Delicious
4 summer squash, quartered lengthwise
½ c. grated Parmesan
½ tsp. dried thyme
½ tsp. dried oregano
½ tsp. dried basil
¼ tsp. garlic powder
salt & pepper
2 T. olive oil
2 T. chopped fresh parsley leaves
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Coat a cooling rack with nonstick spray and place on a baking sheet; set aside.
In a small bowl, combine Parmesan, thyme, oregano, basil, garlic powder, salt and pepper, to taste.
Place squash onto prepared baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with seasoning mixture. Bake until tender, about 15 minutes, depending on size of squash. Then broil 2-3 minutes, until crisp and golden brown.
Serve immediately, garnished with parsley.
Traditional Gazpacho, adapted from Martha Stewart
Consider this cold soup, because it’s summer, and not all soups are meant to be eaten hot.
2 c. cubed, crustless, day-old bread
2 garlic cloves
salt & pepper
2 lb. ripe tomatoes, seeded
1 4-in. piece cucumber, peeled and seeded
1 1-in.-thick slice green bell pepper
2 tsp. red-wine vinegar
1 tsp. sherry vinegar
½ c. extra-virgin olive oil
Cover bread with cold water, and let soak for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, cover garlic with water in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil. Cook for 3 minutes; drain.
Transfer garlic to a blender. Squeeze excess liquid from bread, and transfer bread to blender. Add 2 teaspoons salt, the tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper and vinegars. Pureé until smooth. With machine running, pour in oil in a slow, steady stream, blending until emulsified. Blend in 1 cup cold water. Season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate gazpacho until chilled, at least 3 hours, or up to 1 day.