Versatile dent corn stars in fall dishes

FLASH IN THE PAN: Dent corn, which has less sugar and more starch than its flashier summer cousin, sweet corn, shouldn't be overlooked as a tasty local food source. Most often dried, ground and used as a grain, it shines in dishes like this sweet potato skillet cornbread. Photo credit Katherine Brooks

This time of year, farmers and gardeners around our region shift their focus from fresh sweet corn — known for tender kernels that can be eaten straight off the cob — to field corn, otherwise known as dent corn. Whereas sweet corn is lauded for its role in low country boil, corn pudding and as a vehicle for butter, its cousin dent gets much less attention.

Dent corn, as the name implies, has a small dent in each kernel and is mostly used in its dried form as a grain. A small dent forms on the sides of the kernels as the water inside evaporates. It contains more starch than sugar and provides a high volume of grain when put through a grinder or mill.

A few years ago, I spent a summer getting intimate with corn, running an 1890s-era water-powered grist mill at a summer camp in Brevard. A picturesque waterwheel powered the millstones, and all the dent corn used for grinding was grown at the camp. The setup was similar to that used by the white settlers who originally built the mill to sustain their community.

The kids experienced a piece of history, helping me sift ground dent corn into cornmeal, grits and flour. We used it to cook traditional Appalachian dishes over open fires and experimented with some not-so-traditional zucchini breads, tortillas and pizza dough.

The versatility of this ancient plant amazed me again and again. Dale Robertson, owner and manager of Gwynn Valley Camp farm in Brevard, shares that sentiment. “Some people even eat dent corn in its dough stage, when it’s watery and juicy before it dents. It’s not sweet, so mostly it is used dried,” he says.

Robertson grows yellow dent corn to feed to livestock and white dent corn for grinding. “White dent corn is less dense than the yellow, so when you bake it, it’s fluffier,” he explains. This could be why some Southern cooks adamantly oppose using anything but white cornmeal for cornbread.

Corn’s wild side

While Robertson sticks to just two varieties, there are a multitude of colors, flavors and textures to choose from in terms of growing corn for drying and grinding. Dave Bauer, owner of Farm & Sparrow grain and milling business, works with heirloom varieties such as bloody butcher, Tennessee red and hickory king.

However, Bauer’s real interest is in landrace corn. “Landrace varieties are semiwild, not fully domesticated, and after about three seasons of adapting and genetically responding to where they are, they kind of become their own thing.”

He gives the example of a variety called tuxpeño, which is famous historically in South America for having a sturdy stalk that could withstand hurricane winds. A couple of years ago, Bauer gave tuxpeño seed corn to a farmer on the coast of North Carolina who was having trouble with crops blowing over in hurricanes. Predictably, a late-summer storm blew in and flooded the farm.

All the farms in a three-county area lost their corn — except for that farmer’s one field of tuxpeño. It was in standing water, but it was still upright, according to Bauer. “We got a really good crop,” he says. “It was like 9,000 pounds of it that we used to start building our milling business.”

Flavor first

Richard Neal, executive chef at The Admiral, values tuxpeño for more than its adaptability — he stews it for his house-made hominy. “I seek out flavor first; after that, I like to find ingredients that have history, cultural significance, a story, and that have been untouched/unaltered as much as possible,” he says. Tuxpeño fits all of his criteria.

Bauer sells to Neal as well as other chefs and bakers in the Asheville area, often working directly with them to help them understand dent corn’s particular properties. “It’s really hard, so you have to definitely cook the grain to get that water into it,” he explains. “But once you do, the grain holds the water and gives a pretty distinct moist texture to the inside of breads.”

Farm & Sparrow sells 13 varieties of corn alone, many of which Bauer has grown and researched extensively. Starting this fall, his unique products will be packaged and available in smaller grocery stores and specialty food markets like the French Broad Food Co-op. But Bauer is quick to point out that playing around with growing corn varieties isn’t just for professionals. “Anyone can breed their own variety,” he says. “If you plant corn on your land and plant another old variety, you will get a cross and have your own variety.”

Corn has been a staple crop on this continent for centuries. Not only is it easily adaptable to unique environments, but it can be eaten fresh in the summertime and dried for use all winter. Unlike other storage grains, corn requires no fancy equipment — growing, harvesting, shelling and grinding can all happen by hand. It has sustained communities for thousands of years, and people like Robertson and Bauer are continuing the tradition.

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About Cathy Cleary
Cathy Cleary works with gardens and food. Her cookbooks include "The West End Bakery Cafe Cookbook" and upcoming "The Southern Harvest Cookbook." Find her blog at thecookandgarden.com She is the co-founder of non-profit FEAST Asheville, providing edible education to kids. Follow me @cathyclearycook

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