One of my most memorable meals ever was eaten on the street in Mexico City. An Indian woman sat on the sidewalk beside an open fire and a heavy iron griddle. She patted out a blue corn tortilla, tossed it onto the griddle, and cooked it while I waited. She covered the hot tortilla with a crumbly white cheese and a sprinkling of red chile and handed it to me. It was perfect.
I was really excited to learn that my friend Kelley has become a tortilla aficionado and that she would let me come over and show me how to turn corn into masa (the dough for making tortillas). Kelley takes “real” and “local” seriously when it comes to food. She likes to grow what she eats and has planted so many different fruits and vegetables that she often doesn’t have to stop for meals–she just nibbles her way through the garden and greenhouse. That’s how I learned how delicious the seedpods of daikon are, not to mention gotu kola leaves, oca, and my new favorite vegetable, yakon.
Kelley is both serious and joyful about corn, as it is an important part of her diet. She grows open-pollinated, heirloom corn varieties with names like Oaxacan Green, Hopi Blue, Bloody Butcher, and Calais Flint. As I admired the ears of corn with kernels in jewel tones of blue, red, yellow and green, I could understand how Native American tribes would regard corn as a gift from the creator and want to identify themselves as “People of the Corn”. Selected for hardiness and flavor for generations, these corns survive in the modern world of hybrid and GMO corn because they are so good, and because there are farmers and gardeners like Kelley who are hungry for authentic taste and willing to go the extra mile to save seed.
Kelley explained that there are two basic kinds of dry field corn: dent and flint. Dent corn has a soft starchy interior that is easily ground into flour, cornmeal, and masa for tortillas. It’s also good roasted in the milk stage or parched when dry. Flint corn is flinty hard and excels when ground into grits and polenta. This year I grew a flint corn called “Floriani”, a family heirloom brought to this country from the Valsugana Valley of Italy, where it was the staple polenta corn. Floriani cobs have beautiful red pointed kernels with a rich, corny flavor. Kelley and I decided to make masa with my Floriani corn and her Hope Blue Dent for comparison.
This is what we did: We started by cutting off the husks, saving the larger ones for wrapping tomales. We ran the ears through a corn sheller to get the kernels off the cob, cranked the kernels through a Rube Goldberg antique seed cleaner, and put the cleaned corn into a big pot of cold water with a few spoonfuls of slaked lime (pickling lime). Boiling the corn with lime for 1/2 hour softens the kernels and loosens the outer skins. After 30 minutes, the heat is turned off and the corn soaks in the limewater 4 to 8 hours (or overnight). After soaking, the kernels are drained and rinsed thoroughly in cold water, rubbing to remove as many skins as possible. At this point the corn is called hominy.
Now the corn is ready to be made into masa (the dough for making into tortillas). I have a hand-cranked corn mill, but Kelley has an electric one, so we poured the whole kernels into the mill, and two metal plates ground it into coarse, wet meal. Kelley put the meal through the mill a second time to make smoother dough. Kelley adds water “until you think you have added too much” and shapes the wet dough into a ball. The ball is covered with a towel and allowed to sit 10 or 15 minutes while the water is absorbed and the dough becomes more plastic and workable.
Making tortillas: Kelley heated a large iron griddle over high heat on the stovetop. We pinched off lumps of masa and rolled them into balls the size of a large walnut. The balls are flattened, patted on both sides, and placed on a tortilla press between two sheets of plastic to be pressed flat and thin. When the griddle is hot, the tortilla is peeled off the plastic and slid onto the hot iron. Each tortilla cooks 30 seconds on the first side. When the edges begin to curl up, it is turned over to cook the second side a minute or so. Finally, it is flipped over and tapped gently for about 15 seconds to encourage puffing. Keep the cooked tortillas warm, wrapped in a thick kitchen towel, until they are all cooked. Kelley says it’s best to let them rest a bit, but I like to eat them right away.
Of course, you can make quite good tortillas with dried masa found in most grocery stores in a 5 lb. bag, or from fresh masa sometimes available in a Mexican food store. Follow the directions on the bag (though I add more water than the instructions say).
I took my pile of mustard-yellow tortillas home and ate them with black beans and a sauté of sweet potato, onion, and chard. A salsa of yakon and another of roasted tomato added piquancy and crunch. Chopped cilantro and fresh lime wedges are essential!
Other memorable taco combinations:
*Trout and chopped broccoli with queso fresca
*Fried fish roe and spinach with ricotta salata
*Andouille sausage ragu and roasted asparagus spears
*Mushrooms and kale with smoked Gouda cheese
*Garlicky chard with roasted poblano and potato
*Spicy guacamole and blue cheese
Kelley gave me a couple of yakon plants (Smallanthus sonchifolius) in the spring, grown from tubers she over-wintered in the greenhouse. The plants, a distant relative of sunflowers, grew a robust 6 feet tall in my garden. I dug them in the late fall to uncover a huge cluster of sweet potato-like tubers under each plant. The harvest filled a garden cart, which I hauled up to the root cellar. The tubers, sometimes called Peruvian ground apples, are crisp and juicy…kind of like a jicama, which is kind of like a big radish with no radish heat. In other words, yakon is mostly about crunchy texture and a great ability to absorb flavors.
Ingredients: 1 large yakon or medium jicama (about 1 lb.), 1 small red onion, 1 or 2 jalapeno or serrano chiles, 1 medium red bell pepper, 1 lime (2 or3 Tbs. fresh lime juice), 1 or 2 handfuls chopped cilantro, salt. Optional additions: 1 orange (sectioned, membranes removed), 4 or 5 thinly sliced radishes or 1 daikon cut in matchsticks, slices of avocado, chopped arugula
Peel the yakon or jicama. Cut into quarters, slice thinly, and cut the slices into matchsticks. Cut the onion in half, slice thinly, soak in cold water if very pungent, and drain. Seed and mince the hot chiles. Thinly slice or dice the bell pepper. Toss everything together in a bowl, sprinkle with salt, and add fresh lime juice to taste. Add the chopped cilantro and any other additional ingredients.
Charred Tomato Salsa
I make this with vine-ripe plum tomatoes from the summer garden. In winter, I use canned or frozen fire-roasted tomatoes.
Ingredients: 1 1/2 lb. (6 or 7 plum tomatoes) or 1 can diced fire-roasted tomatoes, 4 medium unpeeled garlic cloves, 2 jalapeno or 3-4 serrano chiles, 1 small white onion, 1/3 cup chopped cilantro, salt, fresh lime juice
If using fresh tomatoes, put them close under a hot broiler or over a grill fire, turning frequently, until the skin is blistered and charred in spots. Remove the skins and chop to use in the salsa, saving all the juices.
Place a small iron skillet over medium heat. Slice the onion about 1/3-inch thick and arrange the onion slices, chiles, and garlic cloves on the skillet. Dry-roast until softened and charred in patches, about 10 minutes for the chiles and onion, 15 minutes for the garlic. Turn them over half way through roasting. Peel the garlic, seed the chiles, and use a knife or food processor to chop finely, along with the onion. Add the tomatoes and the cilantro and stir or pulse to combine. Season with salt and lime juice to taste.
Roasted Tomatillo Salsa
Tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa) are sometimes called Mexican green tomatoes. They are not tomatoes at all, but a small citrusy green fruit that grows inside a papery husk on low, sprawling plants. They are easy to grow and easy to find in Mexican and most American grocery stores. They are most tart when green (the way they are sold in grocery stores), but sweeten slightly as they turn yellow. The less common purple variety is smaller, with a more intense flavor. You can use fresh or frozen tomatillos to make this salsa. Kelley puts her frozen tomatillos directly onto a hot griddle to pan-roast.
Ingredients: 1 lb. tomatillos (8 to 12, husked and rinsed), 4 medium unpeeled garlic cloves, hot chiles to taste (1 jalapeno, 2 serranos, or more), 1/2 cup finely chopped white onion, 1/3 cup chopped cilantro, and salt
Optional additions/substitutions: lime juice, 1 or 2 chipotle chiles en adobo, 1 or 2 roasted/peeled/seeded poblano chiles, 1 or 2 roasted/grilled green onions.
Heat a large iron or non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Dry-roast the tomatillos and garlic cloves until well browned and soft (3-4 minutes per side for the tomatillos, 6 or 7 minutes per side for the garlic). Put the tomatillos and peeled garlic in a blender or food processor with the seeded and chopped chiles, 1/2 tsp salt, and any optional additions. Blend to a coarse puree. Add the cilantro and chopped onion and pulse to combine. Add fresh lime juice to taste, and water if you want a thinner sauce.
Tomatillo salsa is great in guacamole, with scrambled eggs and cornbread, mixed with cooked chicken or fish, or added to lentil soups.
Corpus Christy Chiles
Our friend Phil has an aunt down in Corpus Christy that makes a fabulous condiment known simply as “Chiles”. No meal is complete without it. Phil didn’t give quantities other than “some” and “a few”, so I made an experiment using the following proportions.
Ingredients: 1 tsp whole cumin seed, 1/2 tsp black peppercorns, coarse sea salt, 3 chopped garlic cloves, 2 or 3 small hot chiles (chiles pequin or bird chiles for more heat, jalapeno or serrano for moderate heat), fresh lime juice or cider vinegar, water
Dry-roast the cumin and peppercorns on an iron skillet over medium heat until toasted and fragrant, about 1 minute. Be sure to shake the pan or stir the spices often to prevent burning. When cool, use a mortar and pestle to grind them to a powder with a generous pinch of coarse salt. Add the chopped garlic and pound to make a paste. Add the chopped chiles (seeded or not, according to your heat comfort) and mash them into the paste. Add one or two tsp. lime juice or cider vinegar and 4 or 5 Tbs water to make a thin sauce.
My sauce was extra delicious– fresh tasting and fruity– because I used about a Tbs or so of our friend Justin’s homemade smoked red jalapeno salsa (just smoked red jalapeno peppers and vinegar). I tried two more experiments: I added a few Tbs fresh orange juice to the sauce (very good–a great dressing for a yakon-carrot salad), and I stirred a few spoonfuls of the sauce into a small bowl of extra virgin olive oil for dipping bread (wow!).
**Kelley will be teaching a class called “Mother Corn” for the Asheville Organic Growers School in early March.