Friday, February 26, 2010

Fun Fact Friday - Science, it's what's for dinner

While I'm performing little science experiments with dinner and blogging about them, Lori has embarked upon her own brilliant project. She's barely a week in so far, but she plans to post a new photograph every day for the next year. You can see what she's doing here! You'll notice that, in contrast to my own photography, her pictures are studied, well-balanced, in focus, and level. I can't even do level without photo-editing software, and she throws around big photography words like - well, I can't think of any. I can be supportive, just don't ask me to understand the lingo.
Wednesday night I threw together some crab cakes, thinking they'd be a nice addition to Melissa's white corn recipe over at Alosha's Kitchen. They sell sweet corn at the grocery store this time of year, how bad could it be, right?

Bad. Little chewy nuggets of starch. If vegetables could have gristle, this corn did. In a willful suspension of disbelief (WSD), I allowed myself to buy something that is clearly not in season.

For any of you that might not be familiar with the general geographic, geologic shape of the planet that we all, presumably, live upon, the earth is a sphere. That orbits a big ball of super-hot gas we call the sun. Because of that orbit, we have seasons. And if you live in the northern hemisphere, it's the coldest damn part of winter right now. Even here in Florida they're expecting us to dip below freezing again.

Corn, on the other hand, is a summer vegetable. Growing up in Wisconsin, oft was the time I'd heard 'knee-high by the Fourth of July', meaning that sweet corn wouldn't really be in season until mid- to late August.

Funny thing about hemispheres, when it's winter up here, it's summer down south, and vice-versa. That means that mid- to late February is the perfect sweet corn season, if, say, you live in Argentina, or New Zealand, or Rand McNally.
Which brings me to the actual science-y bit of today's discussion.

Fresh-picked sweet corn, corn that self-justifies the term 'milk stage' when a kernel is popped, corn which is then soaked in icy cold water and grilled until the husks are almost gone, dipped in melted butter and salted lightly is a good thing. It is good, because fresh corn kernels are still filled mostly with sugar. And it's difficult not to feel joy as butter dribbles down one's chin.

However, the farther corn needs to travel from field to table, or the longer it sits on grocery store shelves, the more that sugar is converted to starch through an enzymatic process, especially if the corn is held at less than optimal temperature. Sweet corn for market is hypercooled to remove as much field heat from the ears as quickly as possible to slow this conversion process. However, a careless or hurried farmer may rush the process, damaging the quality of the corn before it's even loaded on a truck.

Additionally, when I'd buy sweet corn in Wisconsin, it was coming from a farmer who drove it a mile up the road to where he's selling it, and probably picked the ears that day. Right now, I'm approximately 4000 miles from Argentina and Rand McNally, making that trip significantly longer.

Fresh corn is doomed this time of year, because no grocery store has the capacity to hold it at optimal temperature. The warmer corn is, the faster it converts all of the sugar to starch. Corn kept in a humid, 33-degree environment will convert approximately 6% of its sugar reserves to starch in a day. Conversely, in an arid, 50-degree environment, one I'd say closely resembles my local market, corn will convert nearly 60% of its sugar reserves to starch in one 24-hour period.

So sorry, Melissa, to have sullied such a fantastic recipe with bad science. Next time I'm buying frozen.

14 comments:

Cary said...

Interesting. Learn something new every day. And yet, after all that, it still doesn't digest very well. Ah, no matter. I love corn. Corn is my friend. "Grits is groceries" and all that.

wv: squal

"Stop that squallin' or I'll hit you again!" said Grandma, and she meant it.

Melissa said...

Well then. That was quite the lesson for the day. I admit I've been immersed in foodblog and foodsite land for enough time now that I have ceased to buy vegetables out of season. I was talking to someone yesterday about making a caprese sandwich with turkey or chicken, fresh mozzarella, a big slice of summer tomato and basil leaves and my mouth started actually watering. But I laughed and said no way would I have that yet because tomatoes aren't in season. They're sad right now...

Anyway, yes, make it with frozen! And no apologies to me - I just hope you try it again. I can't wait to make your crab cakes!

Elliott said...

Grits are a thing of beauty, made right. I'm thinkin' gramma would withhold my grits if I was squallin.

Love garden tomatoes, and Florida has a beautiful thing called an Uglyripe. Because of the tomato-grower's lobby, they can't be shipped out of the state, but because they're durable (and yes, ugly), they can be vine-ripened before shipping to market instead of reddening with ethylene gas. They make beautiful sandwich tomatoes if I don't just buy one to eat with a little S&P.

And I'll definitely make this again, maybe with grilled shrimp and tomato skewers next time?

MJenks said...

There's a delicate balance between cooling things to the point of lowered enzymatic activity (0 is usually the benchmark here) and freezer burning your food.

I typically don't buy corn on the cob unless it's between May and September. Just my little rule of thumb.

KLo said...

Good to know why my corn hasn't been tasting as ... enjoyable as it does in, say, July. The grocery store should post a disclaimer explaing the scientific reason for this ... heck, this should just hold up your post : )

tracey said...

At least it looks pretty. Did you make up your own crab cake recipe? I'm lucky enough to live near Maryland where the crabcake is somewhere between art & a religious experience. I use my friend Julie's recipe - she's a foodie & developed it growing up in MD. There's nothing better than a good crabcake & not a lot worse than a crappy one.

Now I know what I'm making for dinner. : )

Elliott said...

Mjenks, I normally wouldn't, either, but I was just itching to make this recipe and they seem to have corn in the stores year-round down here. My mistake.

KLo, the truth cuts into the very slim profit margin grocery stores maintain just to stay in business. I don't think they'd want me anywhere near them.

Tracey, I use a recipe (linked below the picture) from one of our favorite restaurants, and a former client of mine. And yes, Maryland-style is the ideal crab cake in my mind. I've tried to grow accustomed to the deviled crabs the Cuban restaurants sell down here, but I just don't enjoy that much spice on top of something as delicate as crab.

calicobebop said...

I'm probably the only person on the planet who hates corn. My family think that I'm some sort of changeling that was left in place of the real "calicobebop" because WHO DOESN'T LIKE CORN? Me. That's who.

Interesting science though - you're like that dude on Food Network... Alton Brown! Yeah!

MJenks said...

I learned my lesson in a very similar fashion. It was never difficult to find corn in Indiana, so when I found it down here in the middle of winter, I thought "Score!" I then took it and grilled it and regretted it immediately.

Melissa said...

"And I'll definitely make this again, maybe with grilled shrimp and tomato skewers next time?"

Nice!

Dammit, why does everyone gotta be so creative? I really have to start trying to come up with my own stuff...

Elliott said...

Calico - because I always want to push food boundaries, I have to ask what you don't like about corn, or is it based on the way it originated (canned and boiled to oblivion) rather than the food itself? Ask Lori about beets...

Melissa - I've been working (albeit sporadically) on a cookbook for the last ten years, adapting and testing and trying and failing and trying again. And if I look at my cooking 10 years ago, it was nowhere as accomplished as it is today. I just love that you cook and aren't afraid of it. That's the biggest step I can't get many of my friends past.

dogimo said...

There's something ineffably sad about vegetables out of season. The thing you want quite literally doesn't exist. As clear as you can bring it to your mind's tongue and teeth, in juice-popping kernelly-explicitness, there is right now no such thing in your world.

Flights to Argentina are relatively cheap, though.

Oh shoot - no they aren't. $1500 bucks????

I'll wait for the South Jersey crop.

tracey said...

had to buy tomatoes today - the snow melted off the grill so naturally we have to barbecue tomorrow - and so sad. they look like toamtoes - right shape & label but they taste like playdough. they're a poor excuse for fruit.

Elliott said...

Have to take advantage of those exposed-grill days.

And yes, sadly, there is no such thing as a ripe tomato in winter up north. But sometimes I buy them anyway, because I love them so. Grape tomatoes seem to be a little closer to flavor-correct.

Be nice and share!

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