Kernels of a good idea

Flint corn can be harvested once the plants have dried off. The corn is then shucked and left to...
Flint corn can be harvested once the plants have dried off.
The corn is then shucked and left to dry before scraping the grains off and removing the chaff.
The corn is then shucked and left to dry before scraping the grains off and removing the chaff.
After it is nixtamalised (soaked in alkaline lime water) the grains need to be hulled or...
After it is nixtamalised (soaked in alkaline lime water) the grains need to be hulled or otherwise dried and then ground up and sieved before being ready to be used as a flour.
 It can then be mixed with water to make tortillas. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
It can then be mixed with water to make tortillas. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED

Hilary Rowley
Hilary Rowley
Now is the perfect time to start growing  flint corn from seed so you can make polenta and tortillas, writes Hilary Rowley.

I’ve always wanted to be able to use the verb "to shuck", and it was partly because of this that I set out to grow some corn so I could shuck my own (yes really).

I grew about 1m square of Kings Seeds’ "Glass gem" in our Waitati garden and got a yield of 2kg, which I thought was pretty impressive.

Other varieties can be purchased through Kings Seeds, Egmont Seeds, and The Koanga Institute, which has a particularly good collection of this kind of corn. Some of the varieties they stock are heirloom breeds which were used by Maori to make fermented corn and are very pure South American originated varieties (No GE).

I plant mine in trays in August in the glasshouse, to make the most of our short growing season. I transplant them as soon as there are no more frosts, with covering to keep the birds from scratching them up. A triple row, fairly close together will maximise pollination (a block sowing). Grow in full sun and rich soil as they are big feeders and also need plenty of water to grow strong plants.

Leave them in the garden until the plants have completely died off, and then pick all the cobs. Shuck the corn (woo-hoo, I did it), that is peel back the husks from the cobs and leave them spread out in a pest-free place to dry. I lay ours on trays inside the house.

When the ears of corn are really dry, twist off the grains with your hands. This can be quite hard on your hands so wear gardening gloves, or I used an empty corn cob as a rasp to scrape the grains off.

Your grain will have a lot of bits and pieces mixed in with it, so to clean it, the grain will need to be winnowed. I use a cooling fan, set up on an outside table and poured the grain back and forth between two bowls while the fan winnows away the chaff (don’t you just love this old school terminology).

You can store your grain at this point, if it is thoroughly dry, in a sealed jar.

To make masa flour for tortillas you need to nixtamalise the corn. This alkalising process increases the bioavailability of both protein and niacin.

You need to get your hands on some hydrated lime, also known as pickling lime. I used about 3cm of lime on the bottom of a big 2 litre jar of water. Shake the jar and then leave overnight. The next day, pour the water off the top. This is your lime water used to soak the grain.

I experimented with 2 ways to nixtamalise the corn.

With one I put 1 cup of corn in a bowl with 1 cup of lime water and soaked for 7 hours. In the other I used the same quantities but put them in a pot and bought to the boil, turned down to a simmer for 15 minutes, then left it to stand for 8 hours.

In both these methods the grain turns a bright yellow.

You will then need to thoroughly rinse the grains with six changes of water as lime water is very alkaline (i.e. caustic) and can burn.

While rinsing, attempt to rub the skins off the grains. This didn’t work for me at all, but it might with a different variety of corn. So if you can rub the hulls off the grains you can grind the corn now and get on with making tortillas. I had to dry my grain out on a tray near the fire, or in the sun, or in a dehydrator, and then grind it as fine as I could in my wee electric coffee grinder (a Breville coffee and spice grinder).

The resulting flour still has all the bits of grain husk in it so I shook it through a fine kitchen sieve, this got rid of a lot of the husk.

So now you have some flour. It is quite a "wholemeal" kind of flour, but very flavourful compared to the bought stuff.

These heritage corns make a very dark, very tasty polenta, which is so much easier to make than tortilla.

I have ordered a whole range of corn varieties to try growing a bigger crop this year, and experiment to see which is the best or our needs.

I think for backyard self-sufficiency, high yield and easy storage makes flint corn growing really worthwhile, so get growing and get shucking.

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