Preserving More Than Just Food
Continuing in my mission to preserve my family’s tradition of stashing away the garden/farm produce to continue summer’s bounty into winter, I decided to try drying sweet corn. The last time I visited home, I was talking with my mom about wanting to preserve food but not having the storage or kitchen space to do full-fledged canning of the sorts she does. It was then that she mentioned that in the “old days”, a lot of vegetables were dried instead of canned or frozen. In fact, my grandmother (who is also an incredible cook, even at the age of 87) seems to have been of the generation to do just that. When my mom pulled out a dusty tin of dried corn that my grandmother had put in our basement some 45 years ago, I was intrigued to find out more about this method. While I wouldn’t have necessarily eaten the contents of that dusty tin, the corn was in some mighty fine shape considering its ripe old age.
Later that day, we visited my grandma and soon were talking about all the old methods of preserving before the days of fridge, freezer and even the modern stove. When I hear these kind of stories, I’m always amazed at how far humankind has come and yet, somehow, how we still managed to miss the target. Modern life is meant to make living better and easier – how did we lose some of the simpliest and best culinary (and no doubt other) pleasures along the way?
For instance, along with dried corn and pickled pears(!), my grandma also told us about quince jam. Her eyes twinkled as she explained in response to our puzzled looks that quince trees use to be abundant and produced small sweet fruits shaped like pears that melted into the sweetest nectar when made into jam. I’d never heard of a quince before that day and now can’t wait to get a tree growing at the farm! Just another example of how mass production and modern demands have filtered out the diversity in our food chain.
So, here is the method for drying the corn. Ridiculously simple and requiring very little effort, I’d say it beats canning any day. Come back in about two months (when the farm is no longer in full harvest mode) for some recipes on how to use the dried corn in savory puddings, soup and casseroles. Here’s the first recipe for a creamy casserole using dried corn. And if you care to, ask someone close to you of an older generation what some of their food stories are. It’s fascinating what memories they’ll conjure up.
Use fresh sweet corn, husked and silk removed with a brush. Six ears will fill up one standard baking sheet and yield about 2 cups of dried corn.
Cut corn off the cob using a sharp knife and a shallow bowl or cutting board. Be sure to cut as close the cob as you can to remove all the kernels and juice possible. Line a baking sheet with foil and give it just a very light coat of nonstick spray. Spread corn kernels out on the baking sheet into an even layer.
Turn oven onto 150 F and place tray on the middle rack. The drying process will take several hours (up to 12, depending on the freshness and juiciness of your corn) so be sure to check on it every 2 hours or so, turning it and shaking the tray gently to loosen any kernels that are sticking together or to the tray. You’ll begin to notice the kernels shrinking and eventually becoming much darker and hard. When all the moisture appears to be out of the corn, remove the tray from the oven and allow to cool off completely.
By the way, if you don’t really feel like monitoring the stove for 12 hours straight, you can turn off the oven, letting the tray sit inside, for several hours and come back to it later. Or, if you have an older gas stove with a large oven pilot light, you might not even have to turn the oven on – just leave the corn sit in there for a day or so to dry on its own.
When the dried corn is cool, place in a paper bag and hang in your kitchen to dry out any remaining moisture. After about a week or so, transfer dried corn to a ziplock bag and store in your cupboards for use later this winter.