May 12, 2015

On surviving Mother's Day + Honey Fennel Gingerbread

I wanted to write a Mother's Day post, at the very least acknowledge the occasion with a special recipe, a kind thought, a photo of my mom and I, anything. But I began Sunday morning by accidentally going on Facebook. That did not go so well for me. I forgot last year's note to self to avoid FB like the plague on Mother's Day (and also ideally hide in a dark hole and not come out for days after). 

Yup. Some years are rougher than others. It's funny how grief doesn't follow a linear or logical path. It's been close to 6 years since my mom died, and I'm still at times whammed in the gut, usually when I least expect it. Most of the time, I'm fine. As Hope Edelman says in this year's Mother's Day Letter to Motherless Daughters: "A mother-sized hole will always exist in your life. But as the author Abigail Thomas has said, eventually you get used to never getting used to it." Nailed it.

My mom actually hated Mother's Day. She thought it was a corporate hallmark holiday that was cheesy and overly-commercial. So there. It makes me laugh when I think of it. Mother's Day rubbed her anti-establishment bone the wrong way, for probably all the same reasons she wanted me and my sister to call her by her actual name, instead of mommy. But I think she secretly delighted in anything special we did to mark the occasion. For all her rebelliousness against mainstream culture, she had the most tender heart I've ever met.

My mom and our unconventional post-modern art 'Christmas tree', circa 1985

Still, she always made a point of protesting if we did anything for Mother's Day. Save it for my birthday, she would say, that is the real day you should be celebrating me. I try to remind myself of this every year, sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn't. My boyfriend also lost his mother, a few years before mine, so our approach is to just kind of pretend Mother's Day isn't happening and try to go about our regular activities. Denial seems like a lame way to go about it, but for now it's all we've got.

With rarely-seen curlers in her hair, which she saw as an opportunity to be a goofball

So if any of you out there also found it to be a hard day to get through this year, for whatever reason…  a) please know you were not alone, b) I've got two things for you: my best gingerbread recipe, and these words that the one and only Helen Rosner posted on Facebook, which I found piercingly honest and funny and totally awesome and comforting:

"Love to all having a rough day because you don't have a mom, don't have the mom you want, aren't a mom & want to be, are a mom & don't want to be, hate old photos, or hate brunch."

I happen to love brunch and old photos, so I guess at least I have that going for me. More importantly, I had the mother I wanted, so I am infinitely blessed, no matter how much pain her physical absence causes me.

For my Honey Fennel Gingerbread recipe, whose ambrosial aroma has been clinically proven to melt away loneliness and post-holiday angst (or at the very least, just make a really really nice snack with tea), click hereAnd for those of you who are lucky enough not to suffer from Mother's Day PTSD, I hope it was a sunny and love-filled day this year. 

May 06, 2015

Tortillas will never be the same: nixtamalizing whole corn tortillas in Mexico!

This winter I gave myself a very big gift. The gift of Mexico. It was an antidote to a notoriously brutal Nova Scotian winter, but also to a confusing time in my life, one where the constant shifting back and forth between two lives (one in Maine and one in Nova Scotia) had worn me down. Wanting to put down roots but unable to take the leap in one definitive direction, I chose to just veer off-course entirely and get some perspective from a different vista, recharging my batteries while doing some much-needed work to inch closer to my master's thesis completion.

I swam in the ocean, fed my freckles (who greedily drank sun and multiplied tenfold), consumed large quantities of mangoes, avocados and (!) octopus, met some inspiring new faces, and generally became acquainted with the gentle pace of life in the tiny coastal town of San Augustinillo. You've got to love a lifestyle where your daily to-do list includes eating a whole coconut, on the beach. 

Having discovered true bliss

The high point of each day was walking down the hill to the village's only grocer to buy a very large green coconut, its top expertly lopped off with a few decisive strokes of machete, a straw popped into the exposed fleshy white bubble. And off we'd go, me and my coconut, nature's most refreshing drink. The best part: no plastic bottle, no waste. After drinking my coconut (usually on the sand, where coconuts are meant to be drunk), I'd return home, along the way requesting a few more slices from my machete-wielding grocer friend to expose the gelatinous tender flesh inside. Unlike the dry stuff we get up north, fresh coconut meat is soft, the jello of my dreams. A meal all by itself. It will probably come as no big surprise to anyone who knows me that my most memorable moments of the trip revolved around food. But towering above the mountain of magical food moments (coconut oil-fried platano macho, chipotle shrimp eaten on the beach, fresh-fried chicharron at the market), was by far my journey's highlight: learning how to nixtamilize whole corn and make traditional tortillas with Elena. A game changer.

I met Elena at the friendly family-run posada where I stayed for a month, El Recinto Del Viento. She came daily to cook and clean, sometimes bearing small bags of beautifully-trimmed pan-ready nopalitos (cactus), or free-range eggs from her chickens. She often laughed at the strange fruit I would bring back from the market and ask her how to eat. Early on, we got to talking about corn and when I found out she grows her own and nixtamalizes it every single evening in order to make fresh tortillas for her whole extended family the next morning, it was all I could do to just invite myself right over.

I've wanted to learn how to make tortillas from whole corn for a long time. The 'masa harina' (corn flour) that is sold in grocery stores is made in large part from American-grown GMO corn, except for Bob's Red Mill which is GMO-free. (As an aside, most of the corn used to make tortillas in Mexico is GMO corn imported from the United States, since cheap highly-subsidized American corn has been flooding Mexico ever since NAFTA, a tragedy that caused the mass exodus of literally millions of small-scale farmers who were forced to leave their land in search of jobs in cities or in the United States. You can read more about that in this excellently-written article. And about the GMO contamination of native Mexican corn here.) At any rate, if you want the real deal, a true flavour-packed tortilla, the way to go is whole corn kernels, not masa harina. And since we grow our own organic field corn, it seems like a no-brainer that we should know how to make our own fresh tortillas. But the whole nixtamalization thing was always a bit of a mystery and I'd been lazy about learning how to do it on my own. And now, thanks to Elena, I am all about nixtamalization, all the time. 

Nixtamalization is the magical process whereby whole corn kernels are boiled and soaked in limewater. It's the equivalent of using sourdough to make bread (i.e.: dramatically boosting nutrient content, digestibility, and flavor). In a nutshell, here's what it does to corn:

  • It increases the nutritional value of corn exponentially, making the nutrients more readily available for the body to absorb. For instance, it increases calcium content by 750%! (For corn-dependent cultures, it's crucial to good health and avoiding the creepy-sounding pellagra, a disease found in cultures whose diet is heavily corn-based but who do not practice nixtamalization)
  • It softens the corn, breaking down its outer skin and changing its chemical composition so that it can be ground into a soft pliable dough, known as masa.
  • Nixtamalization reduces carcinogenic mycotoxins which are naturally-occurring on corn, diminishing their content by over 90%
  • Nixtamalization chemically changes the corn, releasing its flavours and aromas, hence that indescribable corn smell that makes one swoon when walking by a tortilleria

It's a fascinating subject to read about, one on which I geeked-out for hours on end after Elena's lesson. And if you're like me and want to know more, you must read the world's most entertaining, informative article about nixtamalization: Dave Arnold's Mesoamerican Miracle Megapost, where he even figures out a way to nixtamalize rye. That guy is my hero.

I was lucky that our expedition to Elena's coincided with my favorite gringo farmer's visit to Mexico, and that we were able to learn nixtamalizing together, especially since corn is one of his favorite crops to grow. We arrived at Elena's in the late afternoon. We first chatted and walked around, tasting tamarind out of plump pods, straight from her tree. We admired her ciruela (plum) trees with their shapely branches, barren of leaves but covered in compact, yet-to-ripen green fruit. Elena's family may not have a lot in the way of economic wealth but they are rich people when it comes to food and knowledge, and the kind of abundance that fertile, healthy soils shower upon you. There is a fulfillment and dignity that comes from living a life where you are directly connected on a daily basis to the source of the food you eat. 

Elena showed us the cream-colored ears of corn (with the occasional purple fleck) that her and her husband grow in the hills near their home and we compared notes on corn varieties. When I told her that we grow a variety of deep yellow corn, she said "oh you're lucky, yellow corn is more flavourful than white!" In fact, I heard this from several people, which leads to the question of why white corn is so popular in Mexico, but I didn't get a chance to ask. But aside from the popularity of white corn, Mexican corn is a smorgasbord of all colours, shapes, and sizes... to be expected from the country known as the birthplace of corn. Having seen purple-blue, bright rose red, and even jade green Oaxacan corn, I am now dreaming of rainbows of tortillas.

One of the native corn varieties at the Mazunte organic farmer's market

To nixtamlize the corn, Elena measured out 4 kilos, the amount she makes every night for the next morning's tortillas (she has a large family and they eat tortillas with breakfast, lunch, and dinner). Then she added about a cup of "cal" or lime to a large metal pail of water and boiled the corn in the limewater over her outdoor wood stove. She boils the corn for about 30 minutes before removing it from the heat and it turns yellow from the chemical reaction with the lime. She says you know the corn is ready to be removed from the heat when the outer skin has started dissolving and the kernels have plumped nicely.

After she placed the metal pail aside to cool and rest overnight, we headed home and returned to Elena's bright and early the next morning, ready to see the next steps. She started by draining the corn and rinsing it in fresh water. She showed us how to rub handfuls of kernels with our fingers to get any remaining pieces of skin off. Once the corn was clean, we walked down to the communal masa mill, or molino in the village centre, a few minutes away.

Fortunately, we were first to get to the mill because shortly after we arrived, there was a small line-up of women waiting to mill their corn. In about 5 minutes flat, the corn was transformed into a fragrant pile of masa. Elena paid a small fee to the woman who runs the mill and we were on our way back, with our precious cargo.

Back at the homestead, Elena kneaded a bit more water into the masa and we got right to work rolling out little balls and pressing them into tortillas. 

After pressing, Elena showed us how to carefully place the tortilla on the hot comal (the large clay plate that sits on top of the fire). There is a certain graceful technique to it. You place them delicately, one end first, so they don't tear or fold. 

I loved everything about this step of the process, the way the tortillas puffed up, the smell of the wood smoke mixing with the rich corn-ey aroma that makes your mouth water, the mound of warm tortillas that grew higher and higher as the little bolitas of dough became less and less. And then we tasted our first tortilla and well, probably my life will never be the same again.

Elena learned to make tortillas when she was 8 years old, and has been making them pretty much every single day since. So we knew we were learning from a pro. When she learned how to make tortillas, there were no mechanized mills and she used a metate (a traditional grinding stone) to mill the nixtamlized corn into masa by hand. When you consider the amount of work that goes into making a tortilla, from planting the seed to harvesting the corn, to nixtamalizing it and milling it into masa, rolling it, pressing it, then cooking it, you start to look at tortillas differently, you eat them with a bit more reverence. I asked Elena if she ever got bored or tired of making tortillas every day and she said no. She enjoys the ritual and finds pleasure in it. 

When you travel to another country, you see people going about their daily lives as an outsider, looking in. I've never gotten much satisfaction out of being a tourist and staying in a hotel because there is a part of a culture that you cannot really understand unless you're invited into someone's home. There, you become a participant, not just an observer. To me, that makes all the difference in the world. So when someone invites me into their home, and especially into their kitchen, it is the greatest honour and pleasure, and no amount of sight-seeing can ever provide the richness of experience, the opportunity to exchange knowledge, culture, and friendship, and to have your mind and heart cracked open a little.

I feel so grateful to Elena for sharing her time and wisdom with us. It was a true gift that will always stay with me. In fact, I returned home with a nagging tortilla obsession, an itch that could only be relieved by seeing if I could replicate what I had learned in the vastly different environment of my home kitchen. It's still a work in progress, but I'll share my experience of it, in case it is useful to anyone out there who wants to try. For those of you who share the obsession and have already assembled techniques and solutions for small-scale whole kernel tortilla-making at home, please do share in the comments! All feedback, tips, and thoughts are appreciated.

Makes about 2 dozen tortillas

2 pounds whole corn kernels (dry 'field corn' - not sweet corn - preferably organic)
1/4 cup pickling lime
3 quarts water

Mix the pickling lime (find it at hardware supply stores or buy it online) and water together in a large heavy-bottomed non-reactive pot (such as stainless steel, do not use aluminum). Wash off any lime that gets on your hands. Rinse the corn and add it to the limewater. Bring to a boil and then maintain a gentle simmer for about 30 minutes.  It can take more or less time than this, so check the kernels every now and then to see if the skin starts to dissolves. Lime creates a chemical reaction, so don't be surprised if the kernels change colour  Our yellow kernels get a green skin as soon as they touch the limewater. It's perfectly normal. After about 30 minutes, remove the corn from heat and allow it to cool and rest at room temperature overnight, and for up to 24 hours. 

Drain the corn and rinse it in fresh water several times, rubbing handfuls of kernel with your fingers to loosen any remaining bits of kernel skins. (Don't worry if some remain). Now you have nixtamalized corn kernels! You could use them to make a delicious pozole or you can mill them into masa.

Milling masa is the tricky part. Traditionally, this was done on a large grinding stone called a metate. Today, most Mexicans have access to a mechanized molino. I wanted to buy a metate but seeing as I could barely lift the thing, bringing it home seemed improbable. A blender or food processor isn't powerful enough to mill masa, but I had heard of using an old-school meat grinder so this is what I did. Hello tortilla noodles!

I had to run the corn through about 3 times and it was still a little chunky for my liking but the resulting tortillas were still a success, and quite pliable. I have since gotten a few tips from Facebook followers and from the amazing Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo. Steve uses a Nixtamatic grinder that he bought and had shipped from Mexico, he even made a video showing how it works. Cost is about $400. Apparently, putting the masa through a blender or food processor after it goes through the meat grinder is also an option. As is using a Victoria hand crank mill, but again, you have to put the corn through twice to get a decent masa. I found that adding a little water to the corn as it went through the grinder was useful.

Either way, once you have your masa, you need to add a bit of water, about 1/4 to 1/2 cup but this varies. The dough should not be so dry that it cracks, but should not be so wet that it sticks to your hands. Once you've got a nice working dough, you can knead it a little and then roll it into little balls, about the size of golf balls or a bit bigger, depending on what size tortilla you want. You then flatten it, either by hand, or using a tortilla press (which comes in heavy cast aluminum or wood and can easily be ordered online). Pressing between 2 sheets of thin plastic is the way to go. You gently peel back the plastic and then cook the tortilla on a hot skillet, over medium-high heat. About 1 to 2 minutes on each side. Place the hot tortillas in a clean tea towel and keep them wrapped and covered so they stay warm and develop that lovely pliability and chew.

Phew! Is anyone still reading?? This might be my most epic post yet. I could say more, but you're probably exhausted, and so am I. Though this is probably not the last you'll hear from me on the topic… Happy nixtamalizing, please share feedback in the comments!

March 06, 2015

Beef and Stout Stew… and hellos from Mexico

I made this a couple of weeks ago, on a very snowy day, right before I made my get-away.

It's a simple meal that hits the spot on a cold winter's day: grass-fed beef stewed in a whole bottle of dark beer with mushrooms and carrots, served over mashed potatoes.

I don't usually do this whole running away from winter thing. But one morning a few weeks ago, I woke up to the umpteenth snow blizzard raging outside and thought to myself, you know, I don't have any kids, I can carry my job with me anywhere I go, and I could work on this blasted master's thesis from somewhere sunny because there is nothing tying me down anywhere in this exact moment of my life.

Plus, I was due for a visit to my old stomping grounds, because this winter marks exactly 30 years since my parents took me to Mexico as a kid. We spent 5 glorious winter months living in a tent on the beach in a tiny town (well, tiny at the time) on the Pacific coast called Puerto Escondido, a place which holds some of my best childhood memories. I didn't go to school that year, I had a pet baby parrot who followed me everywhere, and I basically romped around on the beach all day, practically naked, playing with the local kids, jumping in the waves and picking up Spanish as I went. Yes. Pretty freaking idyllic. (And as someone said knowingly the other day when I told them about it, "Ah, tus padres estan los hippies!" ... yes, well they never liked it when I called them that, but you're kind of asking for it if you're living on a beach in a tent for 5 months...) 

So I bought a plane ticket, shoveled out my car (this photo was actually taken right before the insane mega snowdumps that the east coast got pummeled with right before I left), had to get 3 people to help me push it out of the snow, and a few days later, found myself staring out of the plane window at the big blue ocean and long stretch of beaches as the plane touched down in Huatulco. Free as a bird.

Puerto Escondido has changed so much since thirty years ago that I barely recognized it. It's much bigger than I remember it. I had wanted to feel the magic and see all the spots I remembered from my 7-year old eyes. But on that first day, I just felt sweaty, tired, and very alone. The only things that felt familiar were the smells and the sounds. That moist smell of sun-bathed palm leaves and sticky flowers mingled with the faint whiff of garbage, laundry soap, and burning wood. It's the sweet perfume of my childhood days here and it brought me right back. After a good night's sleep, I woke up in much better spirits, ready to devour my favorite Mexican breakfast, huevos a la mexicana and agua de papaya, with my feet firmly planted in the sand. It would be almost impossible not to feel deliriously happy after a breakfast like this.

What I love about the main beach in Puerto Escondido is that it's a perfect mix of locals, fishermen, and both Mexican and foreign tourists. In the evening the port is filled with fishing boats returning from their day at sea. It's still very much a working port but also a gorgeous swimming beach. Everyone seems at home here.

The main beach, Puerto Escondido

I spent 3 days exploring Puerto Escondido, vaguely asking around if anyone knew my old Mexican playmates, Olivia and Maselica, the sisters who played on the beach with me and sometimes invited me to their house. Not surprisingly, given the size of the place, and how many years have gone by, I didn't have any luck finding them.

Puerto Escondido market

As much as I love Puerto Escondido, I needed a quieter place to settle into my thesis work, so I've headed an hour south along the coast, to a tiny beach town called San Augustinillo, where the rhythm of life is very conducive to completing one's thesis.

The afternoon light hits the main street in San Augustinillo

It's a calm, magical place on the ocean, with the sweetest little café ever (from which I'm writing this), the best shrimp and octopus I've ever eaten, and stunning ocean views from everywhere. I am falling madly in love with this place already.

Having just devoured a plate of fresh-caught shrimp in chipotle sauce
I've settled into a small posada up on the hill, which feels like a secret hideaway from the world. This was the welcoming committee when I arrived (whose eggs are collected each morning).

The ducks of the household

And this is the view from my room. I think I can handle seeing the sun rise over the ocean from this window every morning.

The view from my room up on the hill

There's no wifi connection there, so its a little internet vacation for me…  I don't know how much I'll be able to post here in the next month, but we'll see what happens… either way, I hope to come back to you in the spring, with some new Mexico-inspired recipe ideas. Until then, I leave you with this wintery dish I made before leaving snowlandia. It's full of flavour and a great comfort food. Enjoy!

Click here for the recipe.