Polenta is Back on the Table: Organic Floriani Flint Corn

When Anthony and Carol Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm sold their 140-acre farm to retire to upstate New York, Oregon lost not only two of the loveliest people I've had the pleasure to call friends, but also a crown jewel of Oregon's food system. Not just the outstanding fruit and vegetables that they'd shepherded through numerous seasons, adapting them to their nuanced tastes and our Northwest climate, but also meticulous plant breeders who introduced new varieties to market buyers, chefs and restaurant menues, setting a standard of quality that's as yet unmatched.

So good with roasted and braised vegetables and meats.

Along with their beans, berries and tomatoes, a particular focus of Anthony's was the corn that they produced—about which he wrote an entire book called Beautiful Corn—including white, flint and purple varieties they named Amish Butter, Roy's Calais Flint and Peace No War, respectively. The milled Roy's Calais Flint was a particular favorite of my family, made into cornbread, polenta and more. That meant that when the Boutards left, our source for local polenta was literally taken off the table.

In the months after my horded supply of Roy's had been plundered down to the last kernel, I searched local sources for new flint corn types. I even tried several varieties of Italian polenta available at stores, but nothing was satisfying my craving for that deeply corn-flavored, toothsome texture and flecked beauty.

Thanks, Camas Country Mill!

Then I discovered that Camas Country Mill, a local miller in Junction City, Oregon, that farmer Tom Hunton and his family opened in 2011—the first mill of its kind to operate in the Willamette Valley in nearly 80 years—carried a variety of organic ground flint corn called Floriani Red Flint, a dead ringer for the Roy's from Ayers Creek.

Grown by Fritz Durst, a farmer at Tule Farms in the Capay Valley of California, it's milled a bit coarser than the Roy's, so requires more liquid and a slightly longer cooking time (see recipe, below). You can purchase the Floriani Red Flint Cornmeal in three-pound bags direct from Camas Country Mill, or in the Portland metro area contact Adrian Hale of the PDX Whole Grain Bakers Guild. (Adrian's also a great source for small-batch grains and flours from regional mills. Highly recommended by Dave for home-millers!) Both sources also sell a Floriani corn flour, which is a finer grind and more suited to baking.

Floriani Red Flint Corn Polenta

3 c. water (or stock)
1 c. Floriani cornmeal
2 Tbsp. butter or olive oil (optional)
1/2 c. parmesan, freshly grated (optional)
1/4 tsp. dried thyme (optional)
Salt to taste

In a medium-sized pot, bring water to boil. Whisk in cornmeal. Keep whisking until the mixture comes to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer for at least 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the polenta thickens and is tender to the bite but not mushy, add butter, cheese and thyme, if desired, plus salt to taste. If it seems too thick, stir in additional water a little at a time.

This polenta can also be made ahead and poured into a pie plate or baking dish and refrigerated until it sets, then cut into sections and fried or grilled.

Sign up for Adrian's PDX Whole Grain Bakers Guild newsletter to buy grains, flours and beans. Read Anthony Boutard's series of Farm Bulletins to learn about his methods and practices.

Restaurant Memories: The Corn Soup That Made Me Swoon

For many people, their strongest memories center around firsts: the first time they rode a bike, their first car, their first kiss.

Chef Benjamin Schade.

For me, many of those memorable firsts center around—no surprise here—food. The first time I had spit-roasted whole pig cooked over a fire by my uncles at a tiny cabin in the Blue Mountains; my first taste of kimchi at a snowy mountainside inn on a student trip to Korea; my first pesto pasta in the early days of Papa Haydn's eastside location that was so packed with garlic I could still taste it three days later—which I adored, by the way!

I remember being floored by the broth served with rockfish made by chef Serge Selbe at the London Grill that was as clear as water but was intensely infused with the flavor of fresh tomatoes—he described it as filtered gazpacho. More recently my mind was blown by the corn soup made by Benjamin Schade when he was chef at the late, lamented Old Salt Marketplace in northeast Portland.

Slice kernels off cobs.

Regular readers know I'm a fool for anything with fresh corn in it, and this bowl was the essence of corn in a smooth, creamy, velvety robe, adorned only with a pat of butter melting seductively over its surface punctuated by a sprinkling of fresh pepper. I'd been so taken with it I pestered the poor guy for a couple of years, and just this summer he graciously agreed to share the recipe.

Recently Schade has been cultivating a working urban oasis he's dubbed Schadey Acres Farm, growing heritage varieties of beans, squash, peppers, turnips and other vegetables in the more-than-a-dozen raised beds he's built around his home. He makes use of this bounty in his capacity as a personal chef, but also produces a line of pickled and preserved goods under his own Private Reserve Preserves brand.

Purée kernels with onions, then press through a sieve.

When Schade arrived to show me how the soup was made, I was astounded to find out it had only four ingredients: butter, onions, corn and salt. No cream? What made it so velvety? He said it was all in the method, which he'd learned from Kevin Gibson while working at Castagna.

That answered a lot of my questions about this remarkable soup, since I consider Gibson to be a soup guru. (Anyone remember his remarkable Too Many Tomatoes soup from Castagna? I rest my case.)

With credit given where credit was due, Schade went on to say he basically makes the soup according to Gibson's recipe, which is incredibly simple but more technique-driven than one might guess given the number of ingredients.

Hot sauce, salt and it's done.

Starting with onions simmered in butter, Schade combined them with the kernels from 10 ears of corn which he then simmered ever-so-briefly in corn stock—Schade said Gibson told him the secret to corn soup was to "not cook the corn." Purée the mixture in a blender, run it through a sieve and it's done.

With corn nearing the end of its season in the Pacific Northwest, I'll be heading to the nearest farmers' market this weekend and buying up as much fresh corn as I can, so you'd best get there before I do!

Benjamin Schade's Corn Soup

Adapted from Kevin Gibson

Makes approx. 2 qts.

10 ears of corn
3 med. yellow onions, diced finely
1/4 c. butter
2 qts. corn stock
Salt
Dash of Crystal hot sauce (or tabasco)

Cut the kernels from the ears of corn. (Schade recommends placing the cob on a cutting board and slicing one side of the kernels from the cob. Rotate the cob so the cut side is against the board and slice the second side. Repeat on the last two sides of the cob. See photo above.) You can also then scrape the cobs with a knife or a handy little tool called a corn slitter to remove any remaining kernels and juice.

Corn slitter.

If you need corn stock, place the scraped cobs in a large pot (a Dutch oven or pasta pot) and barely cover with water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 30 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh sieve.

While simmering the stock, chop the onions. Melt butter in a large pot and add onions. Sauté until translucent, stirring constantly to avoid browning. (Schade says it's critical not to brown the onions.) Add corn kernels and stir to combine then add corn stock and bring to a simmer. Simmer 5 minutes. (Remember Gibson's advice: do not cook the corn!)

Remove from heat and immediately strain the corn mixture through a sieve or colander, reserving the stock for another use. Put the corn in a blender, making sure not to overfill the blender; you can do this in batches—remember that hot liquids can explode out of a blender, so Schade advises holding down a thick towel over the lid of the blender while running it. Purée until completely smooth.

Strain through a fine mesh sieve into a large soup pot. If you're straining several batches, you can add strained bits of corn mixture back to the next batch to purée and strain. Discard the strained remains in the compost. Schade stresses that it's better for the soup to be thick since extra liquid can be added to thin out the soup but extra liquid can’t be removed. Start thick and thin to perfect texture.

When all the corn mixture has been strained into the soup pot, add 1 tsp. of hot sauce and salt to taste. (Schade recommends no more than 1 Tbsp. hot sauce for 2 quarts of soup; he said "the hot sauce is not for heat but for the vinegar to brighten the flavor.")

Heat briefly before serving, taste for seasonings and garnish with a pat of butter and grinding of pepper.