Sunday, February 21, 2010

Nixtamal ! (UPDATED)

This weekend I undertook something new out of sheer curiosity. What I did is at the intersection of cooking, science, culture and, I don't know...anthropology?

I had read about the ancient process of nixtamalization, where dried corn is cooked and soaked in an alkali solution. In various cultures, this results in Posole, Masa Harina, or Hominy and Hominy grits. The process yields a number of results: the tough outer shell of the corn is removed, as is the germ; the grain swells, becomes soft and starchy, and a number of nutrients are made available that would otherwise be sequestered. Cultures that adopted corn as a staple grain without nixtamalization, such as many groups in the American south, quickly developed deficiency diseases such as pellagra and kwashiorkor. And while this is all new and exciting and exotic to me, it's been common knowledge among countless cultures for thousands of years.

In any case. I took two cups of the whole kernel corn we use for chicken feed. I boiled it for about an hour, until the grains had begun to swell slightly. Then the recipe I had read called for adding ½ cup of wood ashes to the pot to provide the alkali.

Well, our woodstove provides a steady supply of hardwood ash, but I didn't like the idea of having little bits of stuff mixed in with the corn (for example, we dispose of dinner bones in the fire) so first I gathered about a cup of ash, sieved it, added a quart of water, shook it vigorously for a few minutes, then strained the ash solution through filter paper. The sieving and filtering process left altogether about ¼ cup of solids behind.

The effect of adding the opaque gray solution to the simmering corn was spectacular. The color of the liquid turned a clear golden orange, and for the first time, it released the distinctive "tortilla" aroma of hominy, like it had been hiding somewhere.

The nixtamalization process continued for three hours from that point. Somewhere around the two hour mark, the aroma became unmistakably that of fresh sweet corn cooking—a wonderful summertime smell to have in the kitchen in late February. At the three hour mark from adding the ash liquor, the corn grains were plump and swollen, floating in a thick golden gelatinized liquid.

I drained the liquid, rinsed the grains with cold water, drained them again, and covered them with cold water one last time. At this point, I had completed the nixtamal process, and had a big pot of posole/hominy to do something with. (The chickens would devour the leftover liquid for breakfast the next morning). I pondered the issue overnight, consulting a few posole recipes here and there. Come morning, this is what I decided:

Posole Stew:

1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 fist-sized chunk of Virginia ham—rind, fat and all (any good seasoning meat would do—a ham hock would probably be awesome)
3 whole dried chile peppers
1 tsp black pepper
2 tsp garlic powder
2 cans black beans, with liquid
1 tsp dried oregano
1 batch Posole/Hominy (From 2 C dried corn)
1 bottle ale*

Combine all ingredients in a crockpot and simmer on low, stirring occasionally. After several hours, remove ham and cut into small bits; return to pot and continue simmering. Season to taste—I deliberately omitted salt as the Virginia ham seems to provide enough salt on its own. The posole and black beans together make a complete protein, so the meat could be omitted for a vegetarian dish. However, in that case I would be sure to add some good olive oil to make up for the lost fat.

Conclusion? The posole stew was well-received by the panel of judges (...considering it was made from chicken feed and all...). Personally, I find the whole process absolutely fascinating, and after just one batch don't feel like I really understand what I did exactly. The transformational nature of nixtamalization reminds me most of the magic of mashing beer, where suddenly, with just a little nudging from the cook, something appears that wasn't there just a minute before. In mashing, it's the activity of, it's chemistry and probably some enzymes as well. It's all very cool, regardless.

I suppose I'll try it again the meantime, there's leftovers to be put away.

* Please note this was the aforementioned "Sorghum Ale," and as a result, the stew developed an awful flavor upon standing. Please substitute any good stock, broth, bouillion or even plain water. It also solidified, so I would either halve the quantity of posole or double the quantity of liquid.  I would stay away from beer--hops does not work well in this recipe**.
** I'm actually surprised how frequently when beer is used as an ingredient, the hop bitterness dominates the contributed flavor--beer bread is a great example. It's rarely the malt, unless the beer is a stout with a strong roast and a low hopping profile. I'm starting to rethink beer as an all-purpose ingredient.

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