When corn was first introduced to the European diet, and later when it was heavily relied upon by the poor southern states, a massive outbreak of Pellagra occurred. Pellagra is a B3 (Niacin) vitamin deficiency. It is characterized by the 4 Ds: dry sky, diarrhea, dementia and death. Lovely no? Niacin is present in corn but it’s bound to other chemicals making it impossible for the human body to absorb—unless it’s released through alkaline processing called “nixtamalization.” I know, that’s a really big scary word. Basically by soaking the corn in a structure that has a high pH, basic, the B3 vitamin gets released in the corn so the human body can absorb it.
The Indians never suffered from Pellagra; they had been soaking their corn in mixture of lime (a calcium hydroxide, not the fruit) and ash mixtures for centuries. Did they know about the nature of vitamins and bioavailability? Probably not. This process developed a lot of flavor, killed off fungal toxins and made it easy to separate the soft, mashable innards of each grain from the hull/skin of the seed. It’s probable that because these advantages meant tribes would continue to “nixtamalize” their corn, they were able to observe the health benefits over time.
Europeans failed to learn from the local inhabitants of the New World and so they never prepared their corn as the Indians did. It was cheap to grow and became the staple foodstuff of the lower class diets. As a result pellagra outbreaks in the 18th and 19th century became common but they were blamed on toxins thought to be present in the corn crops. It wasn’t until an outbreak in the American Deep South during the early 1900s that killed 1500 people that doctors began to think it could be a problem with corn itself.
Today a variety of foods in the American diet are fortified with vitamins and minerals most people don’t even know they are getting. Iodized salt, as an example, is salt that contains iodine and were it not for that fortification, a number of people would probably be walking around with goiters today. Niacin is in almost any wheat product we buy today as well as naturally occurring in meats. Cheap meats have made it so any omnivore American is able to get their needed dosage…which ironically is only possible because of corn. I’ll tell you more about THAT in a few days.
So if you ever find yourself eating corn as the center of your diet, be sure to consume a great deal of hominy. It’s fallen out of fashion but this was an incredibly popular dish, especially in the south after that nasty pellagra outbreak, made from corn that has been treated with an alkaline wash. Alkaline washes are a step in food processing for wet milled corns such as tortillas. The recipe that follows could be adapted to use canned hominy incorporated into the polenta or in place of the fresh corn if desired.
Creamed Chicken with Corn and Bacon over Polenta
adapted from “The Best of Gourmet” 2001
For Creamed Chicken
- 6 slices bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
- 1 lb skinless boneless chicken breast halves
- 2 cups fresh corn kernels
- 1 cup milk
- 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 2 Tbsp all purpose flour
- 1 1/4 cups half and half
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 3 large plum tomatoes, sliced
- 6 cups water
- 2 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1 1/2 cups instant polenta
- 2 cups mozzarella cheese, diced
- 1/2 cup finely grate parmesan
Cook bacon in a large heavy skillet until crisp. Transfer to paper towel, and reserve 1 1/2 tablespoons of fat from the skillet. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper, then saute over medium high heat in the chicken fat. Once the chicken is cooked through, 8 – 10 minutes depending on thickness, remove and let rest. Slice.
Meanwhile gently simmer corn and milk in a heavy saucepan over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Pour the mixture through a sieve and reserve the cooked milk and corn separately.
Return the saucepan to heat and add the butter; mix in the flour and prepare a roux by stirring nonstop for 3 minutes. Gradually whisk in the half and half, then the warm milk, pepper and salt. Bring to a boil and then simmer–continue whisking throughout this. After about 3 minutes simmering add in the tomatoes, corn and sliced chicken. Put the burner on low and keep the mixture warm while you prepare the polenta.
Bring water to a boil in a heavy saucepan with a pinch of salt. Add the polenta and cook for 5 minutes, whisking constantly. Add in cheeses.
Spoon polenta among plates and top with the chicken mixture. Garnish with basil.