Late summer in Massachusetts means two important things, vegetable-wise (even though both are technically fruit!) – tomatoes and corn. Both are truly amazing coming from the garden, farmstand, or farmer’s market! Today I’m focusing on the corn, but look out for a tomato post soon!
Corn is one of those vegetables that no one really hates – it’s sweet, if a wee bit bland, and usually used primarily as a vehicle for butter. Unfortunately, because of this it’s gotten a bit of a reputation for being unhealthy. Our associations with are of high fructose corn syrup and canned products soaked in butter and cream, and granted, these are not high on most people’s nutritional check list. But in its native form, corn is high in B vitamins and antioxidants – its no super food, but it can be part of a healthy diet, particularly when eaten as a whole grain, in the form of cornmeal and all of its permutations. It’s still reasonable healthy raw or lightly cooked, providing Vitamin C and those antioxidants, but the Vitamin B takes a bit of work.
You see, when Europeans first started growing and consuming what the Native Americans called maize (corn is actually a generic name for grain that somehow stuck to this one in particular!), they quickly fell ill from malnutrition – in particular, a rather nasty disease called pellagra (don’t click that link if you are squeamish!). Pellagra is caused by a lack of Vitamin B in the diet, which was initially quite the mystery since the Native Americans ate quite a bit of corn and were just fine! As it turned out, the Europeans had missed a crucial step in the way the Native Americans processed the corn – before grinding it up, they soaked it in water filled with ashes or lime – both of which make the water alkali. This releases the Vitamin B in the corn, allowing a human to make use of the vitamins when the cornmeal is eaten. The process is known as nixtamalization, and now used, in more high-tech form, whenever corn is made into corn meal. This, along with a somewhat more balanced diet, halted the pellagra, and made corn into a fantastic whole grain to put into your diet!
There are many ways to enjoy cornmeal – I make a mean cornbread, if I do say so myself, and I have a to-die-for polenta recipe from Barbara Lynch that I may share with you all another time. But today I want to give you the recipe for one of my very favorite cornmeal dishes, the one that inspired this post. This recipe is extra-fantastic because you can utilize fresh, wonderful farmer’s market corn along with corn meal, for a side dish that is sweet, salty, nutty and cheesy all at once. I give you – arepas!
More specifically, these are arepas as interpreted by Mark Bittman as interpreted by me. Are you confused yet?
Arepas are a sort of corn cake or bread that are popular in Venezuela and Colombia. They’re sort of like English muffins, if English muffins were made of corn, and are often used in the same way, to make sandwiches or simply toasted. Here’s a link to a recipe for the more traditional Venezuelan arepas. You can see from the picture on that site that they’re fluffier and paler than mine.
What Mr. Bittman did is to imagine them with some of the traditional toppings and fillings right inside the pancake. He also uses whole-grain, stone ground corn flour – hence the somewhat coarser texture of these arepas. He works in cheese, and the fresh corn kernels, and jalapenos. Here is his recipe, and if you followed that to a T, you’d be very happy!
My variations are quite simple – Mr. Menace likes neither jalapenos nor cilantro, so I just leave them out. However, I think your imagination could run wild with these! You could chop up bits of bacon or ham, if meat is your thing, and add them to the batter. If you’re not a meat eater, you could grate in some zucchini, or some chopped tomato (hey, I worked it in here!), or a bit of garlic.
What would you add?