Archive for January, 2008

Delicious Home Grown Corn – and a tasty movie about the industrial kind


It’s easy, if you have the space. The hard part is ignoring the latest megasweetamazing hybrids featured in seed catalogs, each a new breakthrough in orgasmic splendor. Please try. It’s better to buy that kind of sweet corn directly – or at one remove – from a farmer, assuming the farmer is growing it somewhere near you which they probably are if you have enough space to grow corn.

+ The farmers are pros. They actually do know what they’re doing.

+ All these yummy modern hybrids hold quite well after picking, especially if kept chilled. The old rule about getting the water boiling before you pick the corn can safely be set aside for sugar-enhanced and supersweet varieties.

+ Help keep small farms from turning into subdivisions by purchasing the food they produce. (If they produce it sustainably, so much the better, but growing corn takes up so much real estate “local” trumps almost everything else.)

+ You need the space for the wonderful sweet corns that cannot be bought at any price, even from boutique organic farms at the cutting edge of fashion. Stowell’s Evergreen! Country Gentleman! And the subject for today: Black Mexican, an incredibly flavorful variety that’s tender and juicy when immature, then still delicious as it grows increasingly starchy and finally winds up being the best cornbread you ever baked.

In spite of its name, Black Mexican is a New York State heirloom, introduced in the mid-19th century and probably given its exotic name as a marketing ploy. And in spite of the fact that it’s usually listed as sweet corn, I have my doubts. True sweet corn eventually gets starchy, but it never develops enough starch to make credible cornmeal.

Bakaitis photo
The Black Mexican is on the right. We’ll discuss the other varieties – and the cross-pollination that leads to those dots – some other time.

Whatever class you put it in, Black Mexican’s life as great corn on the cob is pretty limited. The pure white tender and juicy stage ( maybe one ear of it, underneath at the back) only lasts a few days. The unique splendor is that it remains outstanding

When it’s still very sweet but slightly starchy (more white than black): curried corn soup; summer succotash with fresh green beans; creamy corn pudding spiked with jalapenos…

When it’s very starchy but still slightly sweet (more black than white): any place fresh shell beans would be good; in marinated salads; in pilafs with rice; in tomato-based fish stews…


When it’s meal corn that hasn’t dried yet
(not shown. kernels are completely black and starting to stiffen but are still soft enough to puncture with a fingernail). You need a grain mill to grind it after it’s fully dried, but if you catch it at this stage you can use the processor to make a sort of proto-cornmeal that works fine in most recipes. All you have to do is use a little bit less liquid and boost the still-developing starch with a small amount of flour or cornmeal.

Bakaitis photo
Blanched, cut from the cob and ready for freezing, this batch is a little past “slightly starchy” because that’s when Bill was down to harvest it. The yellow spots are the germ, which reminds me to point out that blue corns tend to be the highest in protein.

Seed for Black Mexican, aka Black Aztec and Aztec Black, is sold by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Seeds Of Change, among others, I’m glad to say. When we started growing it about 15 years ago it was difficult to find, and saving corn seed is a lot harder than saving tomatoes: varieties must be separated by at least a quarter mile unless you’re up for considerable fiddling.

(Opinion is divided on whether Black Mexican and Black Aztec are the same thing. We have grown both – or at least both as available retail – without seeing significant differences)

That dark green and orange line in the middle distance is a stand of hybrid feed corn; all plants as close to identical as human ingenuity can manage.


The documentary King Corn gets that rating because it’s not only fun to watch, it’s also – if there can be such a thing – a refreshingly gentle polemic. The narrators, a savvy pair of quasi-innocents deeply influenced by Michael Pollan, revisit their distant Iowa roots and through a year of growing the stuff discover how subsidized feed corn, sold to the public as a fine idea: more food for everyone! at low prices! turns out to be a taxpayer milking, fossil fuel guzzling threat to public health that’s dismantling farm communities all over the Midwest. Take a look. Even if you think there’s no connection between America’s weight problem and an average daily consumption of 200 to 400 calories’ worth of high fructose corn syrup,* you might want to see how much of its cost is coming straight out of your wallet.

* Amounts we eat of anything are notoriously difficult to measure. This range is based on pounds of HFCS per person per year as conceded by the Corn Refiners Association (41, citing the USDA) and asserted in King Corn’s press kit (73, citing the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition).

Food Garden Radio

Bunch of Dahlias:


Bunch of talk about food gardening

with Sally Spillane on The Garden Show

Sunday January 13 at 8AM

on radio staion WKZE

98.1 on the dial in the Hudson Valley. Here on the computer everywhere else (but not everywhen else; it’s live broadcast only)

New Year Portfolio Analysis ( Garden Division)

( For the pizzelle recipe, please scroll down)

It’s hard to think coldly about the garden just now, when the catalog stack is approaching tilt and there’s not much else to think about warmly, but this is an ideal time to take a hard look at your return on garden investment. A little abstract evaluation helps ensure high-performing options are not overlooked, and that the resources locked up in losers will be re-allocated to something more profitable.

And we will stop here with the analogy; finance not being my long suit.

Nevertheless. It really helps to list assets and liabilities before you plunge in, and it helps the most to write it down, however roughly, instead of just thinking about it in the shower for a couple of mornings. Unless your garden is confined to 3 or 4 containers, human nature more or less ensures you’re not counting everything. (Think how few calories most of us think we eat and how wrong we are about it almost all the time).

Items It’s Useful to Reassess Yearly:

Space: Not only is there never enough, what there is is not usually tabula rasa. For instance, there’s a 3 X 10 foot strip in the front shade garden completely open for something new, but that something must remain no more than four feet tall without any help from me. By writing this down, I am reminded that it’s not happening with witch hazels, and that time spent mooning over Fire Charm (brilliant red fall leaves, copper-red winter flowers) and the super-fragrant Moonlight should be devoted to the hunt for plants that will actually fit.

You probably have a rough layout of the annual/vegetable garden – or so I hope – so the allocational trick here is simply to fill it all in, in as much detail as possible, before looking through the saved seeds or ordering any new ones. Our roughly 4000 square feet sounds huge, but given how much of it must support tomatoes, corn, garlic, greens, etc. ( including flowers) there’s only a rather small area for the winter squash. As most of it will be filled by super-sweet, long-keeping Cha Cha, from Johnny’s, and Tetsakabuto, from Pinetree, it would be better if I didn’t even LOOK at the Baker Creek catalog (85 winter squash and 80 even more tempting – and space-hogging – melons).

Time: it’s not that writing the truth on paper reveals anything new about “not enough,” but rubbing it in can be bracing. Almost all our new plantings have been and will be shrubs because last year I finally inventoried the gardens, assigning each the time it should have to be at its best. Duh of the week? Even under ideal conditions, it’s impossible for someone with a day job to have more than one complex tapestry of annuals, perennials, vines, grasses, bulbs and shrubs and small trees.

Mulch keeps weeds down and drought at bay; healthy plants resist pests and disease. But some weeds always make it through – that’s why they’re weeds; baby vegetables must be watered by us if nature is disobliging; resistant doesn’t mean immune and anyone who says organic pest control takes no more time and attention than blanketing everything with noxious pollutants is lying. Plus if you don’t formally assign some time to simply enjoying the damn thing, you may find when you look back at season’s end that all you did – however enjoyably – was work.

The bed that used to hold these cheerful perennials now features a dwarf Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia), with white-edged leaves on lacy branches and patchy bark that will grow more and more lovely with time. It is nicely surrounded with mulch and very little else. The carefree echinaceas went to the rough edge of the field, where they’ll be fine, and the yellow Asiatic lilies have been consigned to the compost. They were nice, but not THAT nice, and getting rid of them makes it easier to keep the evil lily beetles from doing in the far rarer L. henrii (barely visible at the far right and slightly more visible below).


Money: a yacht is famously defined as a hole in the ocean into which one pours money. A garden is a hole in the ground which serves the same purpose – except that you have to dig the hole before throwing the money in. Less than romantic necessities like pest control products, compost, twine, fertilizer(s) and gloves are inexpensive individually but they do add up. Add them up before the season starts and you may be unpleasantly surprised, but you’ll also have a better idea of when it’s time to start saying “ I really shouldn’t, ” when visiting the nursery.

When it comes to impulse purchased winter orchids, my advice is to buy ‘em in bloom and then throw them out when they’re done, a great saving of space and time if not, admittedly, money. But I don’t always listen to me. This cymbidium came home with the groceries in February last year, and when it finally finished flowering 2 months later went into the enclosed porch we keep at about 40 degrees to use as a walk-in refrigerator. Come spring, we stuck it in the vegetable garden. In fall it returned to the porch, where it remained until a couple of weeks ago and thereby hangs the tale. With these increasingly common orchids, finding a winter home that’s cool enough is often harder than finding one with enough light, so if you have a reasonably bright spot that stays between 45 and 55 degrees you might as well give it a shot, especially if the spot is somewhere out of sight. Non- blooming cymbidiums aren’t as ugly as non-blooming phalaenopsis,but they’re not all that lovely, either.