Wednesday, October 09, 2013


Let me begin by leveling with you here. I just watched this great recent interview with the farmer-poet-badass-octogenarian Wendell Berry and it had me all fired up.

I was going to open this post with a loud rant on US corn production, Monsanto & Cargill monocultures, and the crop subsidies that ruin people's health and, since the mid-90s (NAFTA), have flooded Mexico with cheap commodity corn, collapsing local markets and displacing millions of rural Mexicans from traditional livelihoods in regions where corn was basically invented and has been cultivated for 5,000 years, where one out of every three tortillas in the chilaquiles is now made from cheap US corn.

That’s how I was going to open, but I’m going to try to have a better attitude than that. It has been good bringing in the harvest and, although our own garden wasn’t much to blog about this year, we’ve had a couple other different plots around town, like in the new Ephraim Community Garden, where we picked fifty-something ears of flint corn and have been able to gather a few lbs of potatoes (red, yellow, blue).

Also, we’ve been making a lot of tamales. This is partly a seasonal thing for us, and it’s become a kind of nesting ritual as we’ve been getting ready for this baby. (Before having Ash, we made a freezer-full of lasagnas. With Tom it was enchiladas, I think.)

A couple batches of these were from the usual store-bought Maseca flour, but this time we wanted to try out some of this flint corn. Pretty quickly we found out you don’t do much with this stuff without first nixtamalizing it. MS Word has just indicated to me that it has no use for this word, but, basically, it’s the process that has made maize a viable food for a long, long time.

from Wikipedia:

In the Aztec language Nahuatl, the word for the product of this procedure is nixtamalli or nextamalli, which in turn has yielded Mexican Spanish nixtamal. The Nahuatl word is a compound of nextli "ashes" and tamalli "unformed corn dough, tamal."

Nixtamalization typically refers to a process for the preparation of maize (corn), or other grain, in which the grain is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater, and hulled.

The Aztecs and Mayans routinely cooked their corn in lime water (calcium oxide) which improves its nutritional profile considerably: Niacin, which otherwise remains largely unavailable, is made accessible by the process of nixtamalization, calcium increases by 75% - 85% making it more easily digestible, and other minerals, such as iron, copper and zinc are also increased. Furthermore, nixtamalization also counteracts certain mycotoxins present in untreated corn. Fermentation of nixtamalized corn produces even more benefits: increased levels of riboflavin, protein and niacin in addition to amino acids, such as tryptophan and lysine.

Unfortunately this biochemical transformation was completely lost on the Spaniards, who brought corn back with them to the old world and introduced it to Africa, where it soon became an important food crop. However, the people who came to rely on it, but did not have the advantage of traditional knowledge to guide their use, soon became sick with niacin deficiency symptoms.

So, anyway, we tried it with a few cobs’ worth.

Here’s the process, roughly, from hard kernels, to hominy, to the blender, the masa, the filling (pine nuts, queso ranchero, garden Anaheim and green hatch peppers for some, spiced neighborhood apples and pecans for others), and finally, the steamer.

 The rest of the masa we made into tortillas and chips.

Tom taking the leftover husks to the compost.

We tinker with the recipe nearly every time. So rather than post instructions, why don’t I curate some videos here? 

Iliana de la Vega from The Culinary Institute of America demonstrates nixtamalization, grinds the stuff in a big industrial mill (molino), and makes fresh tortillas.

A soft-spoken woman nixtamalizes corn in her home kitchen. (But then she has to go and make it all into corn nuts!)

Yuri de Gortari nixtamalizes, and goes on to demonstrate grinding with a steel hand-crank mill, then a stone one, and then a metate, all while talking about Mexican identity, impeccably dressed and mustachioed! (Spanish)

And, finally, this adorable family proves that you can hardly go wrong making tamales, even when you use Jiffy muffin mix (!), spray the corn ojas with PAM (?), double wrap everything in foil (?!), and then sweeten them with xylitol and sucralose. While wearing a Santa hat.

Speaking of tamales, meet Finn Ovid Brooks!
Born Friday night.

related: Hunahpuh, tortillas, husks


ash said...

Again, beautiful. What a process. And neat to hear about how the process benefits the diet.

And of course, cute babe!

linny said...

What fabulous color in the corn and husks, and look at beautiful little Finn. Good work all around in your fam.

english said...

Thanks, guys.

Yes, the kernels are like little jewels. I think next time we grind, though, I want to get one of those hand grinders, for the right consistency.

Also, 3 weeks old and Finn's growing and goofing apace. I'm pretty sure we got our first real smile tonight.