With the grain: maize

Categories: Expert guidance

Chef and demo kitchen regular Jenny Chandler explores cereal grains and offers tips and recipes to get the best of them. This month: maize

Maize isn’t really a regular on my shopping list. Other than the odd corn on the cob and maybe a bag of polenta or masa harina, we don’t seem to consume much at all. Yet more maize is produced than any other cereal on the planet—more than rice or even wheat. So where does it all end up?

While maize is grown all over the world, and eaten directly as a staple in Mexico, Central and South America and much of Africa, the United States is by far and away the greatest global producer. In the US maize is seen primarily as a feed, rather than food, crop, much of it being fed as silage to cattle, or grain to chickens. There’s also a surge in production for creating biogas, a highly contentious issue. Many argue that use of prime agricultural land, the liberal employment of fertilisers and the resulting soil degradation outweigh the positives of this ‘eco-friendly’ fuel.

When we do eat corn in the UK, we may not even be aware that we’re doing so. Corn syrup and corn starch are favourite ingredients of the processed food industry, offering cheap and effective ways to make our food taste ‘better’, look more appealing, last longer—and make us fatter as part of the bargain.

The bright side
There is, of course, a brighter side to maize: natural, simple cornmeal has the most wonderfully distinctive taste, it’s a good source of carbs, has plenty of fibre and iron, and it’s gluten-free.

In Mexico, where maize originated, life would be unthinkable without the corn meal flour (or masa harina) used to make the ubiquitous tortillas used for quesadillas, enchiladas and tacos. This soft, cohesive corn meal behaves completely differently to regular ground corn because it has been through an ancient process known as nixtamalisation. Dry corn kernels are cooked and then soaked in an alkaline solution, usually containing limestone, before being dried, hulled and ground. The resulting flour is not only perfect to make a dough (unlike regular corn meal, which crumbles apart) but, in a seemingly miraculous stroke of luck, is also more nutritious—nixtamalisation frees up the niacin (vitamin B3), enabling us to absorb it.

For much of the world, maize means a bowl of homely, porridge-like cornmeal cooked in anything from water, to milk, to stock. You have grits, the classic of the American south, a satisfyingly creamy mush often served up for breakfast (hominy grits are made with nixtamalised corn); corn ‘porridge’ of varying consistencies, an absolute staple in much of sub-Saharan Africa as an accompaniment to soups, stews and curries, while the rather unappetisingly named ‘slap pap’ of South Africa is a sweetened, milky dish. That’s just the problem with corn meal; it can be a bit pappy and watery, or at the other end of the scale, rather rubbery.

Sprinkled with parmesan
Polenta, the Italian take on cooking with corn meal, has to be my favourite. The corn is a deep yellow variety, I prefer it when coarsely ground. Real polenta has absolutely nothing to do with that stick of tasteless pre-prepared rubber available in supermarkets. Cooked in stock or milk, polenta is just heaven served soft and fluffy, straight from the pot alongside a good ragù or wonderfully indulgent once firmed up, fried and sprinkled with a generous handful of parmesan.

Read Jenny’s recipe for fried polenta with steamed asparagus