5.30.2018

THE GRIND // the local food report

Two weeks ago on a Friday I pulled Sally out of school after lunch. We played hooky; drove up to Plymouth where I had an interview scheduled with two millers, and learned all about grinding corn.


You can hear the details on this week's Local Food Report—give it a listen, because the Plimouth Grist Mill is an exact replica of the first American grist mill built in that spot in 1636 and present-day millers Kim Van Wormer and Matt Tavares have a great story to tell and know their stuff. But here, in this space, what I want to focus on is the grinds of the corn.

I first starting thinking about this maybe seven or eight years ago, when we joined a grain and bean CSA. Suddenly, our corn was coming to us dried, as field corn. We bought a Kitchen Aid attachment to grind the grains into flours, and most of them were easy—wheat berries to whole wheat, spelt to spelt flour, and on and on. But corn was not that simple. What are grits? I started wondering. How about polenta? Cornmeal? Corn flour? Two years ago, I finally did some experimenting, and figured out how to make grits and cornmeal from dent corn. I've been interested in learning more ever since.

Basically, if you start grinding dent corn (a class of varieties that are easy to mill because of their soft starch) on the coarsest setting of your average home "mill" you get cracked corn—used mostly for chicken feed and making whiskey. 

If you keep going the corn will start to separate into two fairly distinct materials: a fairly fine flour that looks like cornmeal, and bigger, harder pieces. You use a sifter to separate the two, and you get cornmeal and grits. It's important to note that if you're buying store bought cornmeal, usually only stone ground still contains the germ, which is perishable and therefore removed during most commercial processing. It's also delicious and highly nutritious, which is why some people seek out stone ground. If you keep it in your freezer there's no need to worry about the germ going bad; it'll last a good long time. 

Corn flour is easy: it's super fine cornmeal.

And finally, it turns out that polenta is a dish, not an ingredient. In true terms it can be made from any milled grain or starch—even buckwheat or chestnuts—so long as they're cooked into a porridge. But when you see something in a package sold as polenta it's usually a medium grind cornmeal, made from flint corn. Flint corn is harder than dent corn (hard as "flint") and has a very low water content. Because of this it is more resistant to freezing, which means it stores better than dent corn does in places with super cold winters. Apparently it was the only Vermont crop to survive the "Year Without a Summer" in 1816, and while this is admirable, I can't say I'm sorry I missed it.



The corn Kim and Matt are grinding at the Plimouth Plantation mill comes from three places—a farm in Western Mass that grows a fairly traditional, multi-colored Thanksgiving door-decoration style corn, an organic corn from upstate New York, and an heirloom Italian variety called Floriani Red coming from a farm in Westport. The Floriani Red is a flint corn, and as you might guess, its cornmeal is a lovely pinkish color. 

If you get your hands on some, I imagine a strawberry-flecked, bubblegum-hued rendition of this standby cornbread would be excellent. And if you're in the area any time soon, I highly recommend a visit to the Plimouth Grist Mill—it's in town and a very short drive from Plimouth Plantation. Kim and Matt grind on Friday and Saturday afternoons from 1pm to 3pm, and there's plenty to see and learn for all ages.

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