Monday, March 31, 2008

Corny Story

Anyone with access to a cornfield this coming Autumn might enjoy repeating my experiment. I finally saw, a few years ago, on Rick Bayless's show, Mexico- One Plate at a Time, the actual method for making tortillas. So I followed it.
A friend and I went out to visit her mother, who still lived on the family farm. They rented their fields to others, and a corn crop had been harvested several days before. Giving my friend some time alone with her mother, I wandered into the field and acquired about five ears of dried yellow corn that had been knocked down and missed by the harvester. Hard as iron, they were, of course.
At home, I removed the kernels from the cobs by a twisting motion. They popped right off. Adding water and hydrated horticultural lime, I brought the kernels to a boil and then simmered them for an hour. I turned off the heat and soaked them overnight in this mixture, and the next day simmered them another hour. I wasn't sure how long it took to make hominy. I let the potful cool, and then poured it all through a strainer and rinsed the now-plumped hominy kernels several times.
Using a food processor, which put quite a strain on the motor, I blended the corn into a perfectly textured dough. Through beginners luck, I had succeeded. It smelled sublime. Here,now, came my biggest error: I was, and remain, an abyssmally poor tortilla maker! I rolled out some awfully poor, raggedy specimens, and fried them in oil for some crunchy tacos. No good. And no way was I going to struggle through making the probably 200 tortillas that the dough promised. Surrendering, I covered the dough and put it in the refrigerator. By the next day inspiration had struck.
I fried some salted hamburger and onions and a little hint of salsa and a fair amount of chili powder and then assembled a mess of hot tamales. This went much faster, did not take much skill, and used the dough quickly. Plus I could freeze the extra tamales. I steamed them in aluminum foil packets. Of course for cultural accuracy, corn husks or banana leaves would be used for wrapping, then steaming tamales. I doused them with tamale sauce bought from a store. Delicious. I used lard for verisimilitude and will never, ever do that again. I felt over the next few days that I could literally feel the stuff clogging my arteries. It is simply not necessary. A tiny bit of canola oil would suffice, and I suspect no oil whatever will do fine.
Later I learned food-grade lime is available for commercial cooking operations. I used about 1/2 cup for five ears of kernals. I took a little risk with the horticultural grade, I suspect. All the final rinsing I did reassured me, however.
Those without any chemistry should know that the product is not "limestone," also known as calcium carbonate. I mean calcium hydroxide with H2O affixed. One assumes that historically a lye prepared from hardwood ash was used. I envision also a primitive method where hardwood and native limestone chunks are made into a fire and after the fire is burned out, the lime and ash used as a single compound. Lye- or calcium-treated corn is known as masa nixtamalera. This process allegedly makes niacin more available nutritionally.
In addition, the laborious grinding of dried corn is circumvented. As a lazy chef searching for shortcuts, and one who formerly studied anthropology and maintains an interest in the field, I thoroughly enjoyed my experiment, and the resulting dinner as well.

1 comment:

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