soups and beverages, and the husks (and occasionally fresh corn leaves, when in season) are used to wrap tamales. I've even had charred cornsilk in certain types of atole. Mexico is connected to corn in a way that I can’t fathom as an American who grew up in California. But living in Mexico for four years, I developed a deep appreciation for corn and its history, and its array of colors and textures. Taking pictures of Mexican corn seemed like a natural thing, in my eyes. How else do you capture a thing of beauty? Here's a small selection of corn photos from my archives. Feel free to share your favorite corn dish in the comments!There’s a saying in Mexico: sin maíz, no hay país. It means without corn, there is no country. This isn't really an overstatement -- corn has been domesticated in Mexico since at least 2,500 B.C., and it's still the most important ingredient in the Mexican diet. Corn is used in everything from tortillas to
nixtamal, the dough that forms the base of tortillas, sopes, huaraches, tlacoyos, gorditas and countless other Mexico City street foods. Nixtamal is made from dried corn that's soaked in a mixture of water and a mineral called calcium hydroxide. The mineral, which can be white and powdery or rock-shaped depending on where you buy it, adds important nutrients to the corn and better enables our body to digest it. Upon contact with the kernel, the calcium hydroxide pulls at the kernels' hard outer skin, which eventually sloughs off and makes the corn smoother and easier to grind. Because of the fluctuating price of corn -- and the unpredictable nature of a Mexico City mill, which may or may not have the nixtamal ready by the time customers want or need it -- many tortillerías in the capital now use packaged nixtamalized corn flour, like Maseca or Minsa. When I lived in DF, I'd always ask before approaching a new tortillería: "Es de maiz maiz, o Maseca?" If they replied "Cien por ciento maíz", I'd buy there. A lot of people are increasingly worried about processed nixtamal flour completely supplanting real corn tortillas someday. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure where I stand, considering that Maseca and Minsa both provide cheap, quick alternatives (and nutrients) to families that may not have time to make their own tortillas daily. I prefer the taste of real corn tortillas, so I seek them out. Most mills in Mexico City still use thick discs made of volcanic rock to grind the corn, so that adds an extra layer of flavor. The last time I was in Mexico City, I passed by the mill and caught a quick video of the grinder in action. A trickle of water from the faucet makes the dough come together into a solid mass. The bicycle wheel in the bottom-left corner of the frame shows how the workers distribute the masa to fondas and taquerías throughout the neighborhood.One of my favorite places in the Centro Histórico is an old corn mill on Calle Aranda. It's one of the few places left in the neighborhood that still grinds dried corn into
I found this skinny vegetable, which almost looks like oversized baby corn, at Mercado La Merced a few days ago. The vendor, an older woman with gray hair, told me the name. But she spoke softly and I was too embarrassed to ask her to repeat it. It sounded Nahuatl. She said you remove the leaves, boil the cob and then shave off the kernels. She also said I could serve it with mole. Have any of you seen this before? Each piece is roughly a foot long, with bumpy, somewhat soft flesh.
Part of me really did think that since I made pineapple atole before in cooking class, I'd be a whiz on it the second time around. That wasn't the case. In my own kitchen, without my classmates looking over my shoulder, I didn't dissolve my masa very well. I ended up with little hard bits that I had to strain out. I also wasn't sure how much masa to add, since I'd downsized the original recipe. (My pot held 2 liters of water, instead of the 3 we used in class.) I put in 170 grams of masa and hoped for the best. But do you know what I learned? Atole is very forgiving. It really doesn't matter how much masa you put in it, or how much fruit. As long as you dissolve and blend things correctly, it's all to your own taste. My own result, at the end of 40 minutes of careful cooking and tasting, was a thick, sweet drink that was just as good as the one I’d made in cooking class. And it tasted much more pineappley, since I'd added in an entire 4-lb. fruit. Unfortunately all I had to serve it with were freezer-burned tamales. Oh well. Recipe below. ...
Nicuatole stole my heart when I first tried it at a Mexico City restaurant a few months ago. The waiter had described it as a corn-based dessert, and it arrived as two off-white, triangular wedges sitting in a puddle of vanilla sauce. As soon as I tasted, my mind turned to ooze. The nicuatole (pronounced "nee-kwah-TOLE-ay") was milky. Earthy. Grainy. Sweet. The corn had this sharp, almost granite-like flavor that reminded me of a homemade corn tortilla. And god, for two wedges, this stuff had maximum comfort power. It was the equivalent of eating cubes of bread soaked in warm milk. Or Cream of Wheat on a cold day. Came home that day and googled furiously, trying to learn more about it. (Or, in a perfect world, find a recipe.) I had no luck for about a month, until my friend Jesica casually mentioned that she may have seen a recipe in a cooking magazine she'd bought at the grocery store. Trying not to squawk, "WHAA?" I asked her kindly if I could borrow the magazine. She said yes. It turns out Ricardo Muñoz Zurita himself had written the recipe. He's the chef at Azul y Oro, where I first tried the nicuatole. I ended up following his instructions exactly -- to mix milk, sugar and corn flour until it's "uniform and thick" -- but I failed at my first attempt. I didn't cook it long enough; it came out soupy. Ever determined to conquer, and finally having the time now that I've returned from my five million trips, I tried again yesterday, using some leftover half-and-half I'd picked up at an organic grocery store. I told Crayton to watch the clock while I mixed my milk and sugar and Maseca flour and stirred, and stirred, and stirred. "How many minutes has it been?" That was me, standing at the stove with my wooden spoon. "Nine." Then, later: "How many minutes has it been?" "Fourteen." I cooked the thing for 21 minutes, until it had the texture of a thick pancake batter. It cooled to room temperature, and the result was a dense, sweet pudding that was plain, but pretty bewitching in its simplicity. A tart fruit sauce -- strawberries or raspberries -- might jazz things up even more, which I may try to do next time. Also, even though I used half-and-half, I think it added a little too much density. I'd use whole milk next time. The recipe's below, if you want to try it yourself. It's the simplest, most comforting treat you can whip up for a sweet treat at home. Nicuatole Adapted from Ricardo Muñoz Zurita's recipe in Sabor a Mexico Serves 4 1/2 cup servings Ingredients 500ml whole milk (about two cups) 50g Maseca corn flour (this is widely available in Latino supermarkets, if you don't live in Mexico) 75g organic sugar In a saucepan over low heat, whisk together milk, corn flour and sugar. Continue stirring almost constantly for the next 20 minutes, using a wooden spoon if you've got one. [Note: This time reflects our high altitude; if you're in a normal altitude, I'd guess it might take about 10 minutes.] Occasionally scrape the bottom of the pan or remove it from the heat to ensure that the mixture doesn't stick or burn. It will slowly thicken from a soup-like consistency to a thick, cream-of-wheat-like consistency; and then, finally, to a mixture resembling thick pancake batter. Scoop some onto your spoon and let it fall back into the pan -- if it plops into the pan in thick dollops, it's done. Remove from heat to molds, or small ramekins. Let cool to room temperature and serve.