Friday, November 02, 2007

Farm Bulletin: What Makes Polenta

Anthony and Carol Boutard are back at the market after a hectic corn harvest. Lucky for us they were able to dry and grind their own polenta again this year. It's been said that their fresh-ground polenta is as close as you can get to that found in Italy. You can find them at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market on Sunday from 10 am till 2 pm. Anthony writes:

Our 2004 seed order to High Mowing [seed company] ended with a hastily added item: #2390 - Roy's Calais Flint. We were without any miller's knowledge or the foggiest idea of what we were doing, but the description hooked us. There was a dry description how a jar of corn seeds was found in recently deceased Roy Fair's basement. Roy Fair had maintained this old New England landrace [def: particular kinds of old varieties that are farmer-selected in areas where local subsistence agriculture has long prevailed] for decades in his Calais, Vermont garden. The description ended with the hook for us: "Makes good cornbread." That understated declaration had the voice of authority, no hyperbole employed. We added the good cornbread corn to the order and recalculated the total. By October, we were amateur millers savoring the fragrance of freshly ground corn. Like all millers, we are now dreaming of owning a really big millstone.

This flint is a very short season corn that ripens in 70 days or so. The plants are short as well, four to five feet tall, with red or green stalks. The foot-long ears have eight rows of kernels, and the color ranges from dark mahogany through pumpkin orange to a buttery yellow. Unlike the ornamental"painted" corns, all of the kernels on a plant are the same color. The color of the plant stalk is unrelated to the color of the grain. This is the corn the colonists of New England encountered as they moved inland, away from the white flints of the coastal areas.

The revered "mais otto file" of northern Italy is identical to Roy's Calais. Perhaps the Italian stonemasons who cut marble in the quarries of western Massachusetts and southern Vermont sent some ears back home. In growing the corn, we have come to appreciate the influence of the pigment on the grain. As a group, the red pigmented ears are the first to ripen in the field, a week or so earlier than the lighter colors. The yellow kernels tend to split in wetter weather, sometime germinating within the unshucked the ear. The orange ears are damaged by earworms, but are resistant to the aphids which attack both the red and yellow ears. In the Piedmont [of Italy], the highest altitude farms have selected out the red ears. At lower altitudes the orange and yellow types prevail. They are all referred to as otto file irrespective of color.

On our terrace of the Wapato Valley, we are going to keep the full range of colors, though we have shifted the proportion of red ears from 10% found in the original to 30%. Our target is 1/3 red, 1/3 orange and 1/3 yellow. The lightest yellows will likely drop out of the mix over time as they set their tassels and ripen quite a bit later, and often have poorly filled ears as a result.

[At the market] We will have grits and meal, as well as a polenta meal which includes both the grits and meal. We use the polenta meal for most everything that calls for either grits or meal. Best of both worlds. When cooking with fresh cornmeal, bear in mind that it absorbs much more liquid than stale meal, just the same as beans. We start at one part meal to three parts water, and work from there. The meal is unbolted (whole grain) and is best stored in the freezer. If you have a bit of raw squash kicking around, Cory Shreiber [former chef and owner of Wildwood] suggests adding some with the meal.

Details: Ayers Creek Farm at the Hillsdale Farmers Market. 10 am-2 pm on the first and third Sundays of the month. Intersecton of SW Sunset Blvd. and Capitol Hwy., just behind the Hillsdale Shopping Center.

No comments: