but it is not. With the exception of Polenta, which is ground cornmeal, corn, as we know it, is fed to the animals.
Ari Weinzweig, of the famed Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan has an excellent blog about the history of how polenta came to Italy. He writes that since corn arrived in Europe, after Columbus’ first visit to the Western Hemisphere, it would be reasonable to assume that the history of polenta would have seemed to have started in the Americas. However, grinding corn meal was a natural next step for people who were already making similar porridges from chickpea flour, chestnut flour, millet, barley and other grains.
Corn came to Italy long after this tradition of porridge eating was well established. In Italian it is referred to as granoturco (“Turkish grain”) which would indicate that, despite its North American origins, it arrived from the Ottoman east, most likely via Venetian traders. One old Italian name for corn is meliga, or melica, derived the even older word for millet.
Polenta remained a staple of the poor, primarily in the north, right into the early years of the 20th century. The Italian peasants who relied on the ground cornmeal they were cooking, were not aware, that it was noticeably different from the cornmeal Americans were eating. What had happened was that the Italians skipped a step from the traditional Native American preparation, leaving people vulnerable to a previously unheard of disease.
In the Western Hemisphere the dried corn kernels were soaked in water that had an added alkaline substance, such as wood ash, lye or quicklime and this step loosened the husk and released the natural niacin in the enzymes of the corn kernel. Humans need niacin; without it, our tissues start to degenerate. The Native American discovery of this process permitted them to make a cuisine that relied heavily on corn—supplemented by beans and squash—nutritionally viable. Polenta makers skipped this stage of the process. The corn was simply grown, dried and then ground. Convenience, it seems, was the reason Europeans skipped this step.
Early in the 18th century, some Italians began to fall victim to a new disease, called pellagra. (The name means, literally, “rough skin.”) The symptoms also included nervousness, sore joints, mental illness and left people looking pallid and unhealthy. At first corn was blamed, and actually banned, as the cause of pellagra. With little else to eat though, many peasants continued cooking polenta just as they had. Finally, early in the 20th century scientific advancement made it clear that nutrient-deficient diets, not corn itself, was the cause of pellagra. Of course, it is no longer a health problem that people have to worry about and polenta is one of the most important dishes in the northern Italian cuisine.
What made me think so much about corn today, is that it is corn season where I live. I received my first share on Saturday from the CSA. I belong to near my home. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. When you join a CSA, you are essentially buying a farm share. Members pay in advance for a growing season so farmers have operating capital. During the growing season, members receive a box of produce from the CSA on a regular schedule. The produce is superior to anything you will find in a supermarket. Most likely the produce from the CSA was picked the morning you received it. Taste and freshness are the stand out qualities of locally grown produce. If you have an opportunity to belong to a CSA or shop at a Farmer’s market, I would urge you to do so. After I had this big bag of corn on the cob sitting on my kitchen counter, I began to think about how corn would fit into the Italian cuisine, that is, if they had it.
Mario Batali, in his book, The Italian Grill, says that Italians do not grill corn, but if they did, this is what they might do.
Corn As Italians Would Eat It
6 ears corn, shucked
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 to 1 1/2 cups Parmigiano-Reggiano (freshly grated)
2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
Hot red pepper flakes
Preheat a gas grill or prepare a fire in a gas grill.
Place the corn on the hottest part of the grill and cook for 3 minutes, or until grill marks appear on the first side. Roll each ear over a quarter turn and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, then repeat two more times.
Meanwhile, mix the oil and vinegar on a large flat plate. Spread the Parmigiano on another flat plate.
When the corn is cooked, roll each ear in the oil and vinegar mixture, shake off the extra oil, and dredge in the Parmigiano to coat lightly. Place on a platter, sprinkle with the mint and pepper flakes, and serve immediately.
Sweet Corn and Zucchini Gratin With Fresh Basil
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 medium red bell pepper, diced
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 3/4 pound zucchini, thinly sliced or diced
- Kernels from 2 ears sweet corn (about 2 cups)
- 3 large eggs or 3/4 cup egg substitute
- 1/2 cup skim milk
- 1/2 cup fresh basil, washed, dried and coarsely chopped
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley, washed, dried and coarsely chopped
- 3/4 cup Sargento® Shredded Reduced Fat Italian 4 Cheese Mix, shredded
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray a 2-quart gratin or baking dish with olive oil cooking spray.
Set aside the kernels from one of the ears of corn.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add the onion. Cook, stirring often, until it begins to soften, about three minutes; add the red pepper and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often, until the onions and peppers are tender, about five minutes. Add the garlic and the zucchini, stir together and add another generous pinch of salt and some pepper. Cook, stirring often, until the zucchini is just beginning to look bright green and some of the slices are translucent. Stir in the kernels from one of the ears of corn. Stir together for a minute or two, and remove from the heat. Pour into a mixing bowl.
Place the remaining corn kernels in a blender jar, and add the eggs, milk and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Blend until smooth. Pour into the bowl with the vegetables. Add the basil, parsley and the cheese, and stir everything together. Pour into the gratin dish.
Bake 35 to 40 minutes, until the top is browned and the gratin is firm to the touch. Serve hot or warm.
Corn, Cherry Tomato, Mozzarella & Basil Salad
- 1-1/2 cups red cherry tomatoes (about 8 oz.)
- 1-1/2 cups yellow cherry tomatoes (about 8 oz.)
- 3/4 lb. fresh mozzarella (use bocconcini or cut large balls into cubes)
- Kernels cut from 1 ear raw fresh corn (about 2/3 cup)
- 1/2 teaspoon. kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup julienned fresh basil leaves
- 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
- 1/4 cup fruity extra-virgin olive oil
Cut the cherry tomatoes in half and place them in a serving bowl. Add the mozzarella cubes and the corn kernels, season with the salt and pepper. Drizzle with the vinegar and then with the olive oil. Toss gently. Top with basil.
Fresh Corn Risotto
- 6 cups chicken stock or low-sodium broth
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion, very finely chopped
- 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice (12 ounces)
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1 cup corn kernels (from 2 ears)
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- In a medium saucepan, bring the chicken stock to a boil with the bay leaf. Keep the stock warm over very low heat.
- In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring until opaque, about 3 minutes. Add the white wine and cook, stirring, until completely absorbed, about 1 minute. Add 1 cup of the warm stock and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until nearly absorbed. Continue adding the stock 1 cup at a time and stirring until it is absorbed between additions. After about half of the stock has been added, stir in the corn, then add the remaining stock. The rice is done when it is al dente and creamy, about 25 minutes. Stir in the cheese and butter; season with salt and pepper. Discard the bay leaf and serve.
Pasta with Fresh Corn Pesto
Pesto is traditionally made with basil, pine nuts, garlic, Parmesan, and olive oil. Here, the classic Italian sauce is reformed with corn in place of the basil. The finished dish has a creamy richness that is reminiscent of carbonara.
- 4 bacon slices, cut lengthwise in half, then crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces
- 4 cups fresh corn kernels (cut from about 6 large ears)
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 1 1/4 teaspoons coarse salt
- 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese plus additional for serving
- 1/3 cup Pignoli (pine nuts), toasted
- 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 8 ounces penne or fusilli
- 3/4 cup coarsely torn fresh basil leaves, divided
- Cook bacon in large non-stick skillet over medium heat until crisp and brown, stirring often. Using a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon drippings from the skillet. Add corn, garlic, 1 1/4 teaspoons coarse salt, and 3/4 teaspoon pepper to drippings in skillet. Sauté over medium-high heat until corn is just tender but not brown, about 4 minutes.
- Transfer 1 1/2 cups corn kernels to small bowl and reserve. Pour remaining corn mixture into processor. Add 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese and pine nuts. With machine running, add olive oil through the feed tube and blend until pesto is almost smooth. Set pesto aside.
- Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to the bite, stirring occasionally. Drain, reserving 1 1/2 cups pasta cooking liquid. Return pasta to pot. Add corn pesto, reserved corn kernels, and 1/2 cup basil leaves. Toss pasta mixture over medium heat until warmed through, adding reserved pasta cooking liquid by 1/4 cupfuls to thin to a desired consistency, 2 to 3 minutes. Season pasta to taste with salt and pepper.
- Transfer pasta to a large shallow bowl. Sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup basil leaves and reserved bacon. Serve pasta, passing additional grated Parmesan alongside.
Pasta With Italian Sausage,Tomatoes and Corn
- 2 ears of corn, grilled for 3-4 minutes, turning occasionally to grill evenly on all sides. Set aside to cool. When cool enough to handle, cut off kernels.
- 8 ounces ziti
- 6 oz. green beans, cut into 1 inch lengths
- 1 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 4 links of sweet or spicy Italian sausage, casing removed
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
- Salt, to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Fresh basil, hand torn
- 4 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated
Bring a pot of water to boil and add salt. Add pasta and cook for 7-10 minutes, until al dente. During the last 4 minutes of cooking add the green beans. When pasta is done, drain pasta and beans, and set aside.
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a medium sauté pan, cook sausage and garlic over medium heat until browned, 5-7 minutes, breaking up into bite-sized pieces. Add pasta, beans, grilled corn, tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Gently stir in basil and Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve.
Italian Vegetable Soup
- 4 ears corn, husks and silks removed
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- Coarse salt and ground pepper
- 1-32 oz container reduced-sodium vegetable or chicken broth
- 2 large zucchini, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
- 1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and diced (about 1 cup)
- 8 ounces green beans (stem ends removed), cut into fourths
- 1 can (14.5 ounces) no salt added, diced tomatoes
- 1/2 cup orzo
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
- 1/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
- 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- Basil Pesto
- Stand ears in a wide bowl. With a sharp knife, carefully slice downward to release kernels. Discard cobs; set kernels aside.
- In a Dutch oven or 5-quart pot, heat oil over medium. Add onion; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until onion is soft, 3 to 5 minutes.
- Add broth and 2 cups water; bring to a boil. Add zucchini, green beans, pepper, corn, tomatoes and orzo; cook, uncovered, until orzo is tender, 8 to 11 minutes. Add herbs, crushed red pepper, cheese and salt to taste. Top each serving with a tablespoon of basil pesto.
- Polenta and Vegetable Bake (bookcasefoodie.wordpress.com)
- Make Your Own Polenta! (deliciousgf.wordpress.com)
- Review: I Love Corn (bookingmama.net)
- San Francisco Italian Restaurant Palio d’Asti Cooks Up a Pot of Polenta for Italian Winter Comfort (prweb.com)
- Michelle Obama’s corn soup with summer veggies (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
May 29, 2012 at 7:35 am
Corn is a favorite so I have printed up most of these recipes to make. One looks better than the next. Thanks for mentioning my polenta and vegetable bake.
August 18, 2013 at 2:11 pm
I like the Corn, Cherry Tomato, Mozzarella & Basil Salad – subtle taste, easy to prepare, looks great.
August 18, 2013 at 3:59 pm
Thank you. I love that you are going back and reading some of my older posts.
July 31, 2020 at 4:44 pm
It’s corn season now here as well. You’re right, it’s pretty hard to find corn other than cornmeal for polenta in Italy. I’m saving each of your recipes, because they all sound so delicious!