Amazing Maize

A look into the Valley’s sweet, golden crops, and tips on picking the ideal ear

In the coming months, almost any country drive in the Valley will take you past seemingly endless rows of lanky cornstalks, slow dancing in the breeze.

To many passersby, these crops might all seem the same. There are, however, numerous breeds of corn growing throughout the region, the main crop being “sweet” (sometimes “supersweet”) corn — the variety usually found in supermarkets.

Sweet corn is harvested while the kernels are still young. Plucking the ear early helps it retain some of its sweetness (as the stalk matures, the sugar inside the corn kernels converts to starch). This type of corn is not usually what you see while driving by; often it’s grown behind rows of flint corn (used for harvest-time decorations), picking corn, or other varieties with hard-skinned kernels (which are not as palatable as their tasty counterparts).

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Paul’s Farm in West Hurley once specialized in growing sweet corn, but now focuses on harvesting ornamental corn, for sale at the farm in September. According to manager Michael Paul, the decorative variety they now grow is American Way — one of the largest breeds, averaging ears at 10-13 inches in length. (“If you space it right,” Paul explains, “you can grow husks up to 19-20 inches long.”) This type of corn is not usually eaten off the cob, but its kernels can be shucked and ground as cornmeal.

Paul’s Farm is also home to the Catskill Corn Maze — a huge, landscaped labyrinth shaped into various scenes when seen from an aerial point of view. (Last year’s maze was designed to look like Henry Hudson’s Half Moon in honor of the Quadricentennial celebrations.) The maze is made up of picking corn, which is generally not harvested for human consumption, but for farm animals to feed on.

Several of the area’s farmers markets do sell sweet corn, and for people looking to buy this delectable variety, Paul offers a few suggestions on how to choose the best quality ears.

“First off, don’t open the tips,” he stresses. “Most shoppers tend to go to farm stands or markets and open up the tip of the husks to examine it, but that won’t tell you much, and it will dry out the corn faster. If you wouldn’t open bananas in a store, don’t do it to corn either.” Instead, he recommends feeling for dents under the tips that might suggest insects have been nibbling on the kernels. Also, look at the external husk for markings from bird pecking and for pencil-sized holes that might indicate burrowing and damage from earworms.

When picking directly from the stalk, look for corn that’s mature, but not past its prime. “When you break an ear in half, if it’s fully mature the kernels will smush or crush,” Paul explains. “But when it’s overripe, you’ll be able to flick kernels off with your thumb, meaning the corn’s already gone into its drying stage.” And of course — whether you prefer your corn grilled, steamed, or boiled; smothered in butter, sprinkled with pepper, or naked — the sooner you eat it after picking, the better it will taste.

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So the next time you drive past those tall golden stalks waving in the wind, wave back, and head to your local farmers market for a batch to serve at your next barbecue.

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