GreenSense- Green Cuisine

Homemade Nixtamal



If you've ever been in Mexico or central America, you know that the corn tortillas you can buy in a U.S. store bear very little resemblance to the real thing. Freshly-made tortillas are vastly better than the store-bought alternative. That's because they're made with fresh "masa" - ground from specially treated corn kernals.

You can't just grind corn into meal and make tortillas; it won't stick together properly. You need to treat the corn with lime first. Furthermore, the meal made from untreated corn is vastly inferior, nutritionally. The lime treatment:

In the process, the texture of the kernel is altered, so that it can be ground into a dough (called "masa") that will stick together when formed into tortillas.

The result of this lime treatment, nixtamal ("hominy", in English), is vastly better to the taste when it's freshly-made. In countries where nixtamal is used, it's made fresh daily. It spoils quickly without refrigeration, but even with refrigeration, its flavor and texture are noticeably better on the day it was made.

Tortillas, delicious as they are, are only one of the many delights you can make with fresh nixtamal. Other traditional latin foods made with nixtamal or masa include: tamales & posole. Settlers in the U.S. Southern states called their nixtamal hominy. (However, today, hominy has the nutrient-rich germ removed, unlike nixtamal) They served it whole, as a vegetable, or ground it into grits. We've experimented with a variety of recipes, either replacing part or all of another grain, or just throwing in some nixtamal or masa: hot cereal (use coarsely ground masa, cook like grits), masa-garbonzo soup (add whole nixtamal & garbonzos to a veggie soup), nixtamal chile con carne (add whole nixtamal kernels), masa muffins (replace part of the flour with ground masa), ...

Note: To grind the cooked, softened corn, and turn it into "Masa de Maz", you'll need a grain mill (available at Lehman's), a food processor, or a "metate": Authentic, handmade tortillas are ground using two stones, one roughly cylindrical, like a rolling pin, the other, flat, like a cutting board. However, even without a grinder or metate, if you have access to a food processor, blender, or meat grinder, you can use your freshly made masa to make a variety of delicious foods. (Click for a spectacular tamali recipe that uses very coarsely ground nixtamal.)

If you can find a farmer who's growing organic field corn, you may be able purchase some at a very reasonable price. You'll have to remove the thoroughly dried kernels from the cob, but it's an easy job - just rub them off. Think twice before using non-organic corn. Most of it is genetically modified to include a pesticide (Bt toxin).

To proceed, put the corn in a cast iron, stainless steel, or Corningware pot (Don't use aluminum - it will corrode and contaminate the corn.), add the water and lime, stir to mix in the lime, and boil for about an hour, or until the skins begin to slip off the kernels when rubbed. Turn off the heat and let cool. You can allow it to rest for up to 24 hours. We often let it sit for only an hour before grinding.

Pour the cooked kernels into a large dishpan and run cool water over them. "Smoosh" them between your fingers to loosen and remove the husks, then rinse, allowing the husks to float away in the rinse water. and smoosh some more, until the water is clear. This will take about 5 min. Drain in a colander.

Now, you can grind the kernels to make tortillas, tomales, or grits, or leave them whole to cook more thoroughly, either alone (great served hot, with butter), or as an ingredient in soups, stews, etc.

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Copyright 2002 Alan Wagener