Corn Maize: The Ears of Summer

brown bag popcorn with garnishes

Recently, I had the wonderful experience of a month-long trip to Kenya and Tanzania. The animals and the birds were incredible but, as a dietitian,  what really interested me was the food. I was astounded by the amazing amount of corn—usually called maize or corn maize in Africa—which was growing everywhere.

The thousands of acres we saw planted were particularly fascinating when you remember that corn is a New World crop. Until the colonization of Mexico and Central America in the 1500s, corn was unknown in the rest of the world. Before that time, people in Kenya ate millet and sorghum.

This topic has always fascinated me: how do new foods get introduced into another culture? Imagine Irish and English foodways without the New World potato … Italian food without tomatoes … Thai, Korean or Chinese food without hot peppers!

In Kenya, most of the white corn they grow is dried and then ground into a porridge called ugali. I love the fact it is normally not salted, so it doesn’t contribute to people’s sodium intake. Ugali is used almost as a utensil; you roll it into a ball at the table with your fingers and dip it into stews or curries. We also had it rolled into cylinder shapes and sliced, similar to Italian polenta (which is usually made from yellow corn).

Central and South America are often called the “cradle of corn”—not only was the grain developed there, they developed a technique called nixtamalization, which greatly improves the nutritional value of corn. The process involves adding dried corn to an alkali solution (originally probably limestone or wood ash, now using a food grade lime—calcium hydroxide) and a long soaking period, then grinding it into masa flour. This alkali treatment makes proteins and vitamins (especially niacin) more available and digestible, and helps decrease toxins, which can occur if corn is not dried well, which can make people ill. Nixtamalization also makes the corn flour more stretchy and less prone to tearing, which is important when making tortillas. Corn tortillas (unlike wheat flour tortillas) are traditionally low in sodium, like the Kenyan ugali.

I learned about international programs in which organizations from Mexico and South America share their techniques for nixtamalization with the people of Africa to help improve nutrient intake. You might be familiar with hominy—a corn product treated with nixtamalization eaten in the southern United States. Hominy can be ground into a cereal or porridge called grits. The salty snack we call “corn nuts” is also made from nixtamalized corn.

Whether you use regular sweet corn or nixtamalized corn products, corn can add beta carotene (the precursor to vitamin A), and both soluble and insoluble fiber to your diet. It also adds color and texture and is a fun way to get kids to eat their vegetables. What other food do you get to eat “on the cob” as well as popped, i.e., popcorn?

Even the corn cobs have great uses. If you cut off the kernels for a corn salad or corn salsa like Cowboy Caviar (see recipe below), you can boil the cobs with carrots and celery and make much lower sodium vegetable broth to freeze and use in future delicious meals. Homemade broth is much more flavorful than expensive canned or boxed broths, and the corn cobs will add a silky texture to your next soup, chowder, or stew.

Whether you like to try new foods—like the recipes below for Kenyan Ugali Cornmeal and Kenyan Corn and Garbanzo Curry—or you have leftover cobs for veggie broth after making the Cowboy Caviar below, or you like savory southern U.S. foods like grits or hominy, Mexican favorites like Elote Street Corn, or traditional Central American snacks like popcorn or homemade corn nuts, corn has something for everyone. As an added bonus for your kidneys and heart, the choices can all be low sodium.

Kenyan Ugali Cornmeal

1 ½ cups cornmeal (white cornmeal is traditional)

2 cups water

Bring water to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and slowly add the cornmeal, stirring constantly to avoid lumps, using a wire whisk. Stir constantly, creaming the cornmeal against the side of the pot with a spoon to break up any lumps. Reduce heat to low and continue stirring and creaming until porridge stops sticking to your spoon and the sides of the pan. Cover and let the mass of dough cook for about 3 minutes on one side, then turn over and cook on the other sides of the dough mass, watching carefully to not burn it.

There are great videos on YouTube that can show you the traditional way this is done. In the pot, form into a disk and turn out onto a plate. Keep covered and serve right away. As it cools it will get thick enough to cut.

Note: Use yellow cornmeal if you can’t find white.

Nutritional information per ½ cup cooked: Calories: 184; Fat: 2 gm; Carbohydrates: 38 gm; Protein: 3 gm; Sodium: 30 mg

Kenyan Corn and Garbanzo Curry

2 tablespoons oil

1 onion, diced

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons curry powder

½ teaspoon cumin

2 cups canned low sodium garbanzo beans, drained

2 cups corn kernels (fresh cut off the cob or frozen)

1 large or 2 small cans unsalted diced tomatoes

2 cups homemade low sodium veggie broth (see recipe below) or water

½ cup chopped cilantro

In saucepan, sauté onions and garlic in oil. Once transparent, add curry powder and cumin, stir until aromatic, then add beans and broth. Simmer 15 minutes, then add tomatoes. Cook another 15–20 minutes, remove from heat. Garnish with cilantro and serve with ugali.

Nutritional information per cup: Calories: 265; Carbohydrates: 40 gm; Fat: 5 gm; Protein: 15 gm; Sodium 230 mg

Rich’s Cowboy Caviar

cowboy caviar1 can low-sodium black-eyed peas or black beans

2 cups corn (fresh cut off the cob or frozen)

1/2 purple onion, diced

1/2 green pepper, diced

1/2 red pepper, diced

1/2 cup cilantro, chopped

1/4–1/3 cup olive oil

1/4–1/3 cup apple cider vinegar

1/2–1 teaspoon low sodium chili powder or chipotle chili powder

1/2–1 teaspoon garlic powder

Ground black pepper to taste

Drain beans. Mix all ingredients, tasting as you add the oil, vinegar and seasonings and adjusting to your taste. Serve chilled.

Note: If you can’t find low sodium canned beans, you can rinse regular salted canned beans for several minutes to remove as much as 60% to 80% of the sodium. You can also soak dried beans overnight and cook according to package directions before you use them in this recipe

Nutritional information per one cup: Calories: 150; Carbohydrate: 20 gm; Fat: 5 gm; Protein: 6 gm; Sodium: 40 mg

Corn and Vegetable Broth

4–6 ears of corn

1 cup coarse chopped celery

1 cup coarse sliced carrots

1 cup onion or leeks, coarse sliced

Optional: Any leftover veggies you have that might add flavor

In a large pot, cook the corn. Remove corn, retaining the water in the pot. Slice kernels off the cob and use in other recipes. Add onions or leeks, carrots and celery. Add any other vegetables you have that might add flavor, such as frozen peas, kale, mushrooms, spinach or potatoes. Simmer 30 minutes. Remove from heat and strain through colander.

Use in curry recipe above or freeze to use in any recipe that calls for beef, chicken or vegetable broth.

Nutritional information: The nutritional content of vegetable broth is very low in all nutrients when made without salt. 

Mexican Elote Street Corn

elote ingredients4–6 ears sweet corn

1/4 cup sour cream

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1–2 teaspoons chipotle chili powder

1/2 cup Queso Fresco cheese, crumbledfinished elote

1/2 cup cilantro or fresh parsley, chopped

Pre-heat barbeque or oven broiler. Boil corn in large pot of water for about 5 minutes. Reserve corn water for making homemade veggie brothp (recipe above). Put corn on barbeque or under broiler until some of the kernels are charred. Meanwhile, mix sour cream, mayonnaise, and chili powder together. Remove ears of corn from grill or broiler. With a pastry brush, brush mayonnaise mixture across the ears. Sprinkle with cheese and cilantro or parsley. Serve immediately.

Nutritional information per ear: Calories: 172; Carbohydrates: 20 gm; Fat: 8 gm; Protein: 5 gm; Sodium: 150mg

Low Sodium Popcorn in a Bag

1/4 cup popcorn kernels

1 teaspoon canola oil

1 brown paper lunch bag

Seasoning options—choose one or two:

  • 1 tablespoon Mrs. Dash or other salt free seasoning
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 teaspoon salted or unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon hot chili oil
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar

In a small bowl combine popcorn and oil. Put popcorn in a brown bag, fold to close. If needed, you can staple the top shut. Microwave on high for 2 ½ to 3 minutes or until there is about 5 seconds between pops.

Optional: You can mix popped popcorn with seasonings, such as those listed above for added flavor.

Nutritional information: 1 serving per recipe: Calories: 155; Carbohydrates: 27 gm; Fat: 5 gm; Protein: 4 gm; Sodium: 0 mg

Katy G. WilkensContributor Katy G. Wilkens recently retired as registered dietitian and department head at Northwest Kidney Centers. The National Kidney Foundation Council on Renal Nutrition has honored her with its highest awards for excellence in education and for significant contributions in renal nutrition. She has also been awarded the Medal of Excellence in kidney nutrition from the American Association of Kidney Patients.

Photos by Rich Wilkens.

This article appeared in the July 2024 issue of AgeWise King County.