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.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Noted with Sadness

One of the primary missions of this blog is the treatment of motorcycling as an act worthy of serious consideration. I would be utterly remiss in that mission if I did not note with sadness the recent death of Professor Harry Hurt of USC at the age of 81.

Professor Hurt was the author of Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures, which came to be known, with no little irony, as "The Hurt Report." This groundbreaking investigation and study of over nine-hundred motorcycle accident scenes, thirty-six-hundred police reports of motorcycle accident, and interviews with over five-hundred motorcyclists laid the foundation for modern motorcycle safety training and practices, and is still considered the bible of motorcycle safety research. Professor Hurt was still regularly holding interviews with motojournalists until shortly before his death, offering his wisdom on the current state of motorcycling—recently noting with concern the rising motorcycle fatality rate brought on by an influx of older novice riders riding bigger bikes—and drinking.

Among the Hurt Report's most significant findings—(blindingly obvious, in hindsight, and Billy Joel be damned)—was that the vast majority of motorcycle accidents occur in good weather, with good conditions and good visibility. Most were caused by the other vehicle failing to yield the right-of-way to a motorcycle because the driver "...just didn't see them," and most motorcyclists involved in accidents were self-taught or learned to ride from other self-taught riders. (This was the era when accident avoidance began and ended with 'laying it down' and hoping for the best).

To say the Hurt Report transformed motorcycling doesn't begin to describe its impact. Later in his career, Professor Hurt ran USC's Head Protection Research Laboratory, continuing his work improving the design and manufacturing of helmets for all types of activities. Recently, there had been discussion of revisiting the original report and performing another round of data collection to evaluate the progress made since 1981, and to identify new areas of concern.

All of us who ride are in the debt of Professor Hurt, who shaped our endeavor in ways we can hardly imagine. Thank you, sir.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Bit of Puzzlement

I am truly puzzled.
Two or three years ago, a huge oak tree fell in the bottomland during a fierce windstorm. The bulk of it has been suspended off the ground for that entire time, resting at one end on its shattered and splintered trunk, and halfway down its length on the nub of a large branch that impaled the earth.

Some time ago I stripped much of the bark off it, and cut up the limbs for firewood. Last summer I sliced off a half a dozen or so lengths for seating around the firepit; this fall I split and stacked those for firewood. More recently, I cut more 16" slices, and split and stacked them to dry briefly in place. I have worked my way down the massive trunk to the point where my chainsaw will not quite sever the trunk when cutting from both sides, so it must be more than 32" in diameter.

What puzzles me is that much of this wood is still completely green (i.e., wet, unseasoned) after so much time; for all intents and purposes, it has not dried at since it fell. How can this be?

I recall hearing that for cut and split wood, you allow one month per inch of diameter; how can so little drying have taken place in a tree without roots, branches or leaves, that is completely surrounded by airflow?

Thursday, February 04, 2010

"Groundhog Day"

"Groundhog Day" (1993): (A) Great movie, or (B) Greatest movie ever?

Wasmund's Single Malt Whiskey

Wasmund's Single Malt Whiskey is now the official distilled spirit of RLYMI. Deal with it.