Be Merry Better Than Sex

Corn thrives in Israel, and there's even a new extra-sweet variety

Limor Laniado Tiroche
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Limor Laniado Tiroche

"People have tried and they have tried, but sex is not better than sweet corn," wrote the journalist and author Garrison Keillor. Pleasure from sweet corn that bursts in your mouth - at least the kind Keillor experienced - is assured if it is eaten close to picking time. From the moment the corn is harvested there begins a process in which the sugar in the kernels turns into starch. With every day that goes by, the corn loses a little bit more of its sweetness.

Many people think that corn is a vegetable, but it is actually a grain that contains starches in large amounts. Young corn has light yellow kernels and a sweet taste. In lighter-colored varieties, a dark-yellow hue can indicate that the corn is very mealy and overripe. Look for ears of corn that have green-tipped stalks and light green husks. Feel the corncobs with your fingers: Hard kernels spell freshness.

Fresh corn may be eaten raw like a vegetable, or cooked in boiling water: about 30 seconds for fresh-picked corn and no more than four minutes for refrigerated corn. Do not add salt to the cooking water because it will harden the kernels. It is possible, and recommended, to grill corn over a charcoal fire, lightly brushing the ears with olive oil or butter. During grilling the sugar in corn kernels becomes caramelized, which guarantees an exceptional flavor.

Apparently the Aztecs in the Mexico region were the first to discover corn as a food. From there it began spreading rapidly throughout the continent. To this day the Latin American diet is largely based on assorted corn products.

Following the discovery of America, Spanish ships brought corn kernels to Spain and Italy. The success of the new crop in Italy was immediate. The boot country, sun-drenched and water rich, produced corn crops in abundance. Other grains often yielded minuscule amounts.

Poor Italians were quick to discover corn's capacity for thickening porridges, which were an especially beloved and popular dish. Thus polenta went from being a porridge made from millet or buckwheat to a dish made from whole corn that is dried and finely ground. That turn of events transformed the status of polenta from poor southern-Italian fare to a dish that was also popular with rich Italians of the north. Traditional polenta was cooked in a paiolo - a large copper cauldron that was suspended over an open fire. When the water came to a boil, the cornmeal was scattered into it. After stirring constantly with a bastone (a long, rounded wood baton ) and adding a little butter and spices, the result was an inexpensive, remarkably tasty and satisfying dish.

In Israel, too, convenient climate conditions allow corn crops to thrive. In recent years farmers in the Arava, Beit Shean Valley, and Jordan Valley have planted supersweet varieties from the United States. Initially the crops were only exported to Europe, but now they are available for purchase locally, under the brand name Gili Corn. These varieties have light-colored kernels and are exceptionally tasty thanks to their high sugar content - 14% as opposed to 3% in traditional varieties.

The corn season begins in the spring but enters its prime at the beginning of summer. Local farmers say we're in for a fresh crop of good corn until winter arrives. Gili Corn is sold at farmers' markets throughout the country and at specialty greengrocers.

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