I went to a lovely dinner party last night. The company and wine sparkled. Friends from childhood were gathered from near and far. The menu: grilled swordfish, burgers, corn, and tomato salad. At one point in the meal, a guest looked up from his plate and said, “This is really what it’s all about.”
Everyone understood. It was about the tomatoes and corn, about the perfect time in the season when they are at their peak and can be enjoyed together. Usually, I am a butter and salt fiend with corn on the cob. The butter on the table went untouched by all. The corn was that sweet and perfect. The tomatoes, a combination of big red beefsteak and bright yellow Brandywine, were dressed in a light vinaigrette and topped with basil chiffonade and crumbled goat cheese.
This has been an excellent year for corn. Some of the tomato crops, however, have suffered from blight, which makes the enjoyment of them that much more special. More on the blight later.
Maize, an ancient name for corn, literally means “our life.” This is an appropriate name considering it has been a dietary staple of many cultures. Oddly enough, Europeans ave never really taken to this “strange food from the New World,” as it was called by one Englishwoman in 1850. Other than the Italians’ love of cornmeal for polenta, fresh corn is still rarely consumed on the other side of the Atlantic.
Corn species belong to a family of grasses that originated in tropical Latin America, possibly Honduras or Mexico. Corn was found under cultivation in Cuba by scouts from Christopher Columbus’s exploration party in 1492. It is the largest crop in the United States. About two-thirds of it is consumed by barnyard animals, and about a tenth is used to make dyes, paints, starches, oils, rubber substitutes, bourbon, blue jeans, and carbon dioxide gas used for carbonated drinks and refrigeration equipment. The tiny percentage of sweet yellow or white corn that is grown, like Shoepeg, Golden Cross Bantam, and Ioana, is what we enjoy.
The most important thing to keep in mind when choosing corn is freshness. Twenty-five percent of the sugar in corn converts to starch within 24 hours of picking. The husks should be very green, the silk at the top fresh. It’s okay if the silk is brown, but it shouldn’t feel dried out. Check the stem as well. It should feel moist, and not be yellowed or dry. You may have noticed that at the most reputable farm stands the corn is kept in the shade, covered by burlap sacks. It is often picked twice a day for maximum freshness.
The tomato, or Solanum lycopersicum, probably originated in the highlands of the west coast of South America, then migrated to Central America. Early references to tomatoes in North America occurred around 1710 when the herbalist William Salmon reported seeing them in what is now South Carolina, perhaps having been introduced from the Caribbean. Botanically speaking, a tomato is the ovary, together with its seeds, of a flowering plant, i.e., a fruit, or more precisely, a berry. Nutritionally, it is categorized as a vegetable. Since “vegetable” is not a botanical term, there is no contradiction in a plant being a fruit botanically while still being considered a vegetable.
Commercially cultivated varieties are bred mostly for sauces, ketchup, and soups. They are picked green, then sprayed with ethylene gas to hasten ripening. Now you know why wintertime supermarket tomatoes are so lame. However, it is possible to get decent cherry or grape tomatoes year round. They’ll do.
There is nothing better than a homegrown or farm stand tomato. Heirloom varieties are available as well, from tomatoes as small as currants, to as large as the threeppound “mortgage lifters” that originated in central Appalachia. They can be green and yellow, orange, brown, purple, white, pink, mottled, and striped. Unfortunately, due to the blight affecting the East Coast this summer and last, tomatoes are a bit more expensive. The late blight, similar to the fungus responsible for the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century, started because of the wet, cool weather of June. The outbreak is believed to have spread from plants purchased from Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Kmart.
John Mishanec, a pest management specialist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension, explained that “farms are inspected, and greenhouses are inspected, but garden centers aren’t, and the people who work there aren’t trained to spot disease.”
If you have tomatoes in your garden, please check them for white, powdery spores, olive green or brown spots on the leaves, and brown or open lesions on the stems. These plants should be pulled out, sealed in plastic, and disposed of, not composted. Even Dan Barber, the meticulous chef and creative director at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., has had to destroy half of his crop because of this highly contagious disease. So there’s my public service announcement for today.
Luckily, there are still tons of tomatoes growing happily and healthily this season. For salads, it is fun to try a variety of heirlooms. Their flavors really vary from sweet to tart and the textures differ as well. Cut some into wedges, some in thin slices. Simply drizzle with good olive oil and sprinkle a bit of salt. Recently I tried a recipe that combined plum tomatoes with ginger and spices in a Chinese noodle dish, what a revelation!
Be sure to buy the ripest, least-blemished tomatoes you can find. And don’t forget the virtues of unripe green tomatoes, a great Southern delicacy when coated with cornmeal and fried.
Enjoy this perfect pairing of summer — corn and tomatoes — while you can. As my friend Tom said last night over our perfectly simple and fresh feast, “This is really what it’s all about!”
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