Ever since I started this series, I’ve been looking for someone who grows and cooks with their own homegrown flour corn. When I heard of Jesica Clark’s love of polenta, which she makes from her own beautiful corn, I knew we had to make a kitchen vignette together! And when I heard she also teaches willow basketry classes, I immediately registered for one of her classes. I spent a glorious weekend learning to weave a basket with willows, and the following day, went to Jesica’s farm to film her corn harvest and polenta making. I came home with my new basket in hand and a belly warmed by a nourishing bowl of polenta.
Jesica is a farmer, a willow grower and a basket weaver. Each year, at her farm in New York’s Hudson Valley, she chooses a new flour corn variety to grow. Last summer, Jesica chose an exquisitely vibrant and colorful corn (which you’ll see in the video) called Seneca Red Stalker. It’s a native corn variety from the Seneca Indian Nation of New York and it’s characterized by deep purple husks. Husking each ear of corn is like opening a gift because each one is completely unique, featuring brightly colored kernels and eliciting gasps of wonder.
When it comes to corn, people are often more familiar with sweet corn varieties, which yield the sugary, tender corn on the cob we love to eat in the summer. But flour corn (aka field corn), is the corn that dominates the rural American landscape. It’s a hard corn that is ready to harvest when its kernels are dry. Most of the corn grown across America is a standard yellow. It’s for the most part uniform and bioengineered to kill insects and resist the spraying of herbicides. Its main purpose is to feed livestock, create biofuels, and be processed into fast food. But beyond this, there is a whole other world of corn where heirloom, traditional varieties have been sustained by generation after generation across the Americas, often by Indigenous Peoples, in both Mexico and the US. In fact, the diversity of colors, shapes, and flavors to be found in flour corn varieties is endless! From deep black to bright blue, from bright red to shades of pink and creamy white, from marbled to almost glassy translucent kernels, the corn plant is a marvel to grow. In many cultures, it is considered sacred, and with a little preparation and care, corn kernels can be transformed into grits, polenta, hominy, pozole, or tortillas.
Jesica and her husband grow most of the food they eat, which is, especially in these days of uncertainty and global crisis, deeply inspiring and something I am also working towards. As Jesica mentions in the video, aside from some pantry staples, their farm sustains their diet and they also sell their tomatoes and greens at a local market. Flour corn makes up a crucial part of their winter diet. After the harvest in the fall, Jesica leaves her cobs to dry down, and then on wintery days, she removes the dry kernels from the cob by hand and with her table-top mill, transforms the kernels into polenta cornmeal. It’s a simple yet sweetly meditative process. Jesica then prepares the polenta with water, salt, and olive oil and then tops it with sauteed kale and onions from her garden and eggs from her chickens for a wholesome, comforting meal that’s easy to prepare and fully homegrown.
If you’ve never cooked with freshly-milled corn, the first thing you’ll notice is the nutty smell of just-milled corn and how the resulting polenta is deliciously creamy and fragrant. Most store-bought polentas are sifted into a uniform-size grit. But with home-milling, you get the whole grain, including the hull and germ, ranging in size from powdery fine starchy particles (basically cornstarch) to coarser grits. This yields, in some people’s opinion, a richer, more flavorful polenta. In Italy, this type of polenta is known as “Polenta Integrale” which means “whole grain” polenta. If you have the option, seek out a locally grown and milled “whole grain” polenta. And if that’s not an option, standard store-bought polenta will also be delicious. Enjoy!
Polenta, Sautéed Greens and Eggs
Jesica Clark is a farmer and willow basket maker in New York's Hudson Valley. On her farm, she grows most of the food that sustains her and her husband year-round. Here she shares an easy, comforting recipe from her farm: Polenta with Sautéed Greens and Eggs.
- 5 cups water or stock
- 1 cup coarsely milled corn (polenta)
- 2 Tbsp olive oil (or butter)
- 1 tsp salt
- Greens & Eggs:
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 bunch of kale, chopped (or other greens like Swiss chard, collards, spinach)
- 2 eggs
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Freshly grated parmesan (optional)
- To make the polenta, pour the water into a heavy-bottomed medium-sized pot, add the salt and bring the water to a boil. Slowly pour in the milled corn while whisking well. Bring the polenta to a simmer on low heat, stirring often, cooking gently for around 30 to 45 minutes, or until the grits are soft and have fully hydrated (they shouldn’t be crunchy). As the polenta thickens, stir it well, scraping sides of the pot so it doesn’t stick. Add 2 Tbsp. olive oil or butter and whisk vigorously to incorporate and dissolve any lumps. Remove from heat. Taste and add a little salt as needed.
- While the polenta cooks, heat 1 Tbsp olive oil in a heavy skillet on medium heat. Add the chopped onion and cook until onion has softened and begins to brown. Add a little salt and pepper to taste. Add the chopped kale and sauté for a minute or two, until wilted. Make little pockets in the kale and onion, pour a tiny glug of olive oil into each one. Crack an egg into each pocket and cover the skillet with a lid until the eggs are done to your liking. Serve the eggs and kale on top of bowls filled with the polenta. Top with freshly-grated parmesan and enjoy warm.
Yield: 2 servings
Aube Giroux is a food writer, a James Beard award-winning documentary filmmaker and a passionate organic gardener and home cook, who shares her love of cooking on her farm-to-table blog, Kitchen Vignettes.