Last year, for the first time, I discovered the joy of drying and grinding my own corn for winter use. This simple, non-energy-consuming method of preservation was long practiced by the Indians and in many cases was the key to their survival during periods of crop failure. Certainly the practice deserves a revival . . . and what better place to start than in our own organic gardens? Even the smallest corn patch is likely to have enough over-mature ears left on the stalks at the end of the season to warrant a little experimentation.
How To Dry Corn and Grind it Into Corn Meal
The fact is, though, that my own discovery of dried corn came about through sheer laziness. By late summer of last year-when the last buttery mouthful of kernels had been chomped off the last tender cob, and I was rapidly growing weary of freezing corn every day — I was dismayed to see that many maturing and overripe ears remained on our garden's cornstalks. What's more, they positively challenged me to do something with them.
Well, I did: I just let them hang there to grow bigger and fatter and tougher. Then, before the first heavy frost, I made a last trip up and down the rows and snapped off enough ears to fill my wheelbarrow. Some were left to feed the birds and other hungry creatures once the snows fell . . . and come spring, any scant remains would be tilled back into the soil to complete the cycle, with nary a grain gone to waste.
The next step was to pull back the husks from my harvest and spread the ears on clean newspaper in the garage where they could continue drying out of the weather for a few more weeks. I then brought the corn into a dry room in the house, and forgot about it until winter was well established and life had settled down to a gentler pace.
It's my good fortune to have a Thoreau-like father-in-law who possesses a marvelous hand-cranked corn sheller of a long forgotten vintage. Thanks to him, I was able to complete the shelling process in just a few exhilarating minutes of cranking, clanking, and whirring. The ears were dropped one by one into the machine's opening, where spinning wheels quickly separated kernels from cob. The dried corn pinged into a metal tub, and the stripped ears came flying out their special hole to fall in a heap on the floor . . . from which they, were removed to their final resting place in the kindling box by the Franklin stove.
If you should come by the use of such a sheller, the only necessary precaution — other than keeping your hands out of the works while the wheels are spinning — is to be sure your corn is perfectly dry. Otherwise the machine will jam and you'll have the tedious task of picking smashed, gummy kernels out of its insides and out of the bucket. (Hand-cranked corn shellers are available for $29.95 from Sears and other suppliers, including MOTHER EARTH NEWS General Store, Flat Rock, N.C. — MOTHER).
In the absence of a sheller, it's not a difficult job to remove the kernels by hand (provided they're really dry). You'll find that your thumbs do most of the work, and may sprout blisters if you're overly zealous in your task.
Once shelled, it's a good idea to cover your corn with cheese-cloth — to keep out dust — and let it dry further. An occasional stirring every couple of days for a week or so should dispel moisture and prevent the growth of a gray, furry mold. (If you live in a damp climate, you may then want to transfer the kernels to airtight containers. — MOTHER.)
And then for the grinding and eating!
To grind your corn you'll need any one of the several types of gain mills that are on the market. Mine is a hand-cranked, cast-iron Corona made in Colombia, South America and available for around $20.00 from MOTHER EARTH NEWS General Store or Smithfield Implement Company, Smithfield, Utah.
One cup of kernels yields about 1-1/4 cups of meal, and you should get a satisfactory consistency in two to three grindings . . . depending on how you set your mill. A fine setting will do the job in two passes, but you'll have to work a lot harder. If you choose a coarser grind to save your strength, the corn will require an extra trip through the machine. It's up to you to decide which you can spare more of . . . time or energy. Since I've already told you I'm lazy, you won't be surprised to learn that I grind three times at decreasing levels of coarseness. At least it's a way to exercise your arm and have something besides sore muscles to show for the effort!
Another labor-saving trick — which also has some redeeming social value — is to set up the mill for a day or more in a prominent spot in the kitchen. I find that no passer-by can resist the urge to toss in a couple of cups of kernels and try his or her hand at the crank. In fact, one evening when we had company I wound up with two quarts of meal without so much as lifting a finger myself.
I believe that tasks of this sort have an excellent potential for bringing people together in meaningful endeavor. Certainly it's more satisfying for a group to gather in the kitchen around the miff than for one person to stand alone, stolidly cranking away. The Indians must have felt likewise, if we're to believe the history worn into stone at such places as Coloma, California . . . where huge boulders with closely spaced grinding holes attest to the once busy society of women who must have gathered there to prepare cornmeal and visit together in the autumn sun.
However you go about it, you'll be repaid for the work of grinding your own corn by the knowledge that your homemade product retains the germ of the grain . . . the source of flavor, aroma, and natural vitamins and minerals. Commercial cornmeal-from which the germ is removed in processing -can be enriched to replace the lost food value . . . but its makers have found no way to replace the scent and taste.
You'll discover this for yourself when you first smell a bowl of freshly ground corn and compare it to the sterile powder in that box you bought at the store. While you're enjoying the fragrance, though, remember that this delight is brought to you through the courtesy of the germ — which is also the home of the corn oil — and be prepared to store the meal under refrigeration or in a cool root cellar to prevent the oil from turning rancid. This is a small price to pay for the benefits of a whole natural food . . . and anyhow, you'll probably find that your cornmeal is so good that it won't sit around unused for long.
No doubt you'll want to prepare some favorite dishes with your homemade product . . . in which case you'll probably find it necessary to soak the meal at least four hours before use. Or, if you prefer to try some recipes that are already adjusted to the characteristics of dried corn, here are a few to get you started:
Dried Cornmeal Pancakes Recipe
1 cup cornmeal
1-3/4 cups milk
1/4 cup cooking oil
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup dry milk
1/4 cup wheat germ
Soak the cornmeal in the milk overnight, and add the eggs and oil the following morning. Sift together the flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt, combine the mixture with the dry milk and wheat germ, and stir in the moist ingredients. Fry the batter on a greased griddle at moderate temperature. Don't expect the pancakes to be light and fluffy! They have substance and flavor and will stay with you well into lunch hour.
Dried Corn Pudding Recipe
2 cups rich milk
3/4 cup dried cornmeal
2 tablespoons melted butter, cooled
2 tablespoons chopped green onion
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons sugar
Heat the milk to scalding, stir in the cornmeal, and let it soak 4 hours (or overnight, if this is more convenient). Combine the other ingredients and mix them with the meal and milk. Pour the batter into a shallow, greased 1-quart casserole and bake it uncovered at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for 50 to 60 minutes or until the pudding is set in the center.
Dried Corn Tamale Pie Recipe
3 cups milk
1 cup dried cornmeal
2 cloves garlic
2 medium onions
1 pound ground beef
2 cups frozen kernel corn (or one 16-ounce can)
2 small cans tomato sauce (or 1 small can tomatoes, drained)
1 small can chopped green chili peppers
2 teaspoons salt
2-1/2 teaspoons chili powder
1 medium can pitted ripe olives, drained
Warm the milk, stir in the cornmeal, and let it soak 2 to 3 hours. Brown the garlic, onions, and meat and stir in the corn, eggs, tomato sauce, chili peppers, and seasonings. Blend these ingredients well with the cornmeal mixture, and add the olives. Pour the combination into a large greased casserole, cover the dish, and bake the tamale pie at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 1 hour or until it's set.
Dried corn has many other uses. It can, for example, be substituted for up to a third of the flour in any bread recipe (if you mix the dough by a sponge method which will give the meal a little time to soak and soften). There's plenty of scope for experiment . . . and the dishes you prepare will taste an the better because you grew and ground the corn yourself.