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Whole Grains and Grain Products

By Gale and Alex Jack

Corn comes in many varieties and colors. Flint corn, which the Northern Indians and Pilgrims used, has hard kernels, matures early, and takes a lot of grinding. Dent corn, favored by native people in the South and Southwest, has soft kernels, matures late, and is easier to grind. It received its modern name from the small dent on the top of each kernel after drying. It is used for making masa, cornmeal, and corn flour. Flour corn, with its soft starchy kernels, is also used primarily for baking.

Popcorn, a traditional native snack, explodes when heated owing to its hard outer layer. Sweet corn, with the largest proportion of sugar to endosperm, is the most widespread type available today. It is usually yellow or white. Traditional blue, red, black, speckled, and other colored corn are slowly being revived and are available in some natural foods stores or by mail order. In our home, we enjoy corn year round, fresh in the summer and fall, and dried or ground into meal or flour in the winter and spring. However, because most corn today is hybrid, including organic corn, and not as vitalizing as traditional standard or open-pollinated varieties, we usually serve another whole grain at the meal in addition to corn. Grinding your own corn, of course, is ideal. Next best is obtaining masa that has been made from whole corn or stoneground cornmeal or corn flour which has not been degerminated.

In addition to the usual ways of preparing corn and making dough, native peoples traditionally leavened it with ashes (made of juniper, cedar, or other fragrant wood) and by chewing. This masticated corn, mixed with ashes and salt, and left to ferment by the hearth was considered the best leavening. Its Aztec name was chica, and natural foods friends today who are accomplished chewers may wish to experiment with this method.

Fresh Corn on the Cob

Fresh corn on the cob is the quintessential American dish. It has been enjoyed by the Native Peoples, settlers in New England and Virginia, and every generation of Americans since. Benjamin Franklin wrote to his wife how much he missed Indian corn and defended it in a letter to a London newspaper which had cast aspersion on American cuisine. The infant country's other ambassador, Thomas Jefferson, grew it in his garden in Paris.

Fresh corn on the cob can be boiled, steamed, baked, or grilled. Traditionally it was eaten fresh from the fields and cooked in its husk. The silky tassels retained the natural sweetness of the grain. Sometimes it was soaked in the husk so that the steam produced by roasting would enable the kernels to absorb the flavor of the burnt husks. In natural foods households today, small pieces of fresh umeboshi plum or umeboshi paste are customarily rubbed on fresh corn to give a tangy, slightly salty taste.

4 ears fresh corn in the husk umeboshi plum

Place corn in oven and bake for about 30 minutes over medium to hot heat. Husk and serve. Take an umeboshi plum and rub the fleshy part on the corn or use umeboshi paste.

Fresh corn may also be grilled for about 15 minutes on a hot stone or griddle.

In a saucepan, fresh corn may be boiled or steamed in a small volume of water (1/2 inch) for about 7 to 10 minutes on a medium flame.

Creamy Corn Grits

Grits have been a favorite from the time of the Jamestown colonists to Jimmy Carter's presidency. Their name is believed to be a contraction of "groats" or "good groats." They are light, quick to prepare, and nourishing. The white corn variety is favored in the South, and the yellow corn variety in the North. We are partial to Southern style and enjoy grits about once a week for breakfast.

1 cups grits 3 cups spring water pinch of sea salt

Add grits and salt to boiling water. Cover saucepan, reduce flame, and simmer for about ten minutes. Serve with sliced scallions, parsley sprigs, or roasted pumpkin seeds for garnish.

Add a drop or two of unrefined corn oil for a richer, smoother taste. A teaspoon of miso diluted in water may also be added the last two minutes of cooking for stronger seasoning. Leftover grits can be reheated or fried into small fritters.

Hopi Bread

The blue-grey tissue-like bread eaten by the Hopi of the Southwest is made of blue corn and is known as piki. Ground finely and leavened with wood ashes, the cornmeal is mixed with boiling water. Then it is formed into a dough that is spread thinly on a hot rock or baking stone which has been oiled with crushed sunflower or squash seeds. After cooking, Piki is rolled or folded and eaten.

2 cups fine blue cornmeal 1 cup boiling spring water 1 cup cold water 2 tablespoons of ash (optional) cold water to moisten

Add boiling water to cornmeal, stirring constantly to prevent lumping. Mix ash (traditionally from the juniper tree) into cold water and add to mixture, continuing to stir. Add additional cold water to desired consistency of batter. Ladle batter with a spoon onto hot oiled skillet. When brown around the top and outside, separate from skillet around the sides. Remove with pancake turner, roll up, and keep covered until all are done and ready to serve.

Tortillas with Vegetables and Tofu Sour Cream

Tortillas are the flat bread of the Southwest. Traditionally, they are made with masa, or whole corn dough. In the natural foods store, ready-made tortillas made with organic cornmeal are widely available. These are not as hearty as the original but are enjoyable from time to time, filled with beans or vegetables from land and sea. Here is one of our favorite combinations. This dish is a nice accompaniment to brown rice and black beans.

4 corn tortillas 1/2 cup broccoli, sliced 1/2 cup onions, thinly sliced 1/2 cup cauliflower, sliced 1/2 cup yellow squash, thinly sliced sesame oil shoyu to taste

Tofu Sour Cream

1 cup tofu 1 teaspoon sweet rice vinegar 1/4 teaspoon sea salt 1/4 teaspoon umeboshi paste or 1 small umeboshi plum

Cut vegetables in very thin slices so they will cook quickly. Brush the skillet lightly with sesame oil and stir-fry the vegetables, adding shoyu just before they are done. Warm tortillas in iron skillet. Place vegetables inside tortillas and roll. Spoon tofu sour cream over the tortillas and garnish with chopped scallions.

To prepare tofu sour cream, crumble the tofu and blend with above ingredients in 1/4 cup of spring water until smooth. Simmer 2 to 3 minutes over low flame.

Vegetables may be varied in this dish. Arame is very good in tortillas.

Whole Corn Arepas

Arepas are corn balls made of masa that have been boiled, baked, or fried. A staple throughout the Southwest and Central and South America, they are easy to prepare and make excellent travel food. We usually pan-fry them in a skillet without oil, but for a richer taste a little sesame or corn oil can be used.

4 ounces masa (whole corn dough) spring water to moisten sea salt to taste

Divide masa into four parts, add salt and moisten with water, and form by hand into small ovals about 2 inches in diameter. Place in hot skillet, lower flame, cover, and simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes. Turn over with a spatula or with cooking chopsticks and let other side cook for another 10 or 15 minutes. Serve warm.


Hominy is more coarsely ground than grits, though sometimes it takes the form of whole soaked, deskinned corn kernels. It takes its name from the original native name rockahominie. Hominy makes a tasty morning porridge.

Hoe-cakes la Thoreau

One of the simplest and oldest corn recipes, hoecakes are made by cooking fresh corn in the husk directly in the ashes or coals of a hot fire. Originally they were made outdoors in the fields on hoes and other farm implements. Thoreau made hoecakes out of cornmeal when he lived on Walden Pond and savored their piney flavor.