Posts Tagged ‘corn


a large vocabulary for corn

There’s a paragraph in the November/December Cooks Illustrated that delighted me and confused me at the same time:

Masa and masa harina are both made from hominy, which is dried corn that has been soaked or cooked in an alkaline solution of water and calcium hydroxide [sic] to remove the germ and hull. This process, called nixtamalization, imparts a distinctive flavor that differentiates masa-based products from other forms of dried corn like polenta and cornmeal.

There’s nothing wrong with the way that’s worded. Why was it reading so funny to me? I realized that it was because I could think so many other ways to word it, and I was thinking of them all at more or less the same time.

  • masa aka dough
  • masa harina aka maseca (a genericized brand name)
  • hominy aka nixtamal
  • corn aka maize
  • soaked or cooked in an alkaline solution… aka nixtamalized, slaked, limed
  • calcium hydroxide aka quick lime, cal, calcium oxide (all these synonyms name the substance before it is mixed with water)
  • nixtamalization aka slaking, liming

This sort of linguistic interference makes playing Scrabble very interesting sometimes, as I try to sort out whether a word is or is not part of the English vocabulary.


Momo’s chicken soup

PJ’s “small and beautiful”* celery soup from a couple of weeks ago made me want my grandmother’s similarly delicate and unassuming chicken soup.

Yields about 3 quarts

Phase 1

  • 1/2 pound chicken scraps (backs, necks, wingtips, whatever)
  • water to cover
  • salt to taste

Put the chicken scraps in a stockpot with water to cover and salt to taste. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, for 30 minutes.

Phase 2

  • 1 medium potato, chopped large
  • 1/2 yellow onion, chopped large
  • 5 medium cloves garlic, quartered
  • 3 small stalks celery, chopped large
  • 1 medium jalapeño (seeded and deveined if that’s your thing; I don’t), chopped large**
  • 1/2 pound bone-in, proper cuts of chicken (I prefer legs and thighs); remove skins and excess fat (there’s already plenty in there)***
  • juice of half a medium lime
  • more salt
  • a generous dash ground cumin
  • lots of fresh ground black pepper
  • about 3 cups more water


While Phase 1 is simmering, prepare the ingredients for Phase 2. Skim the gunk off the top, then add everything on the list above. Return to a simmer and let cook, covered, until the freshly added chicken is done (another 20-30 minutes).

Phase 3

  • 1 ear corn, hacked into rounds that will just fit on a soup spoon to be nibbled at****
  • 1 double handful cilantro*****
  • maybe some more salt, pepper, cumin and/or lime juice, to taste


Fish the chicken out of the soup and put in the ingredients listed above, returning to a covered simmer for while you shred the proper chicken parts. Discard the bones and the chicken scraps from Phase 1. Return the shredded chicken to the pot for 5 minutes or so, and you’re done.


* Small and beautiful, as opposed to aiming for the TV chef goal of “bigass flavor.”

** My grandmother has ulcers and has been told not to eat spicy foods, but at least one chile always makes it in. When I asked her to describe what she put in this soup, the jalapeño was an afterthought. “Oh, and a pepper.” For flavor, of course.

*** I used boneless this time and relearned the important lesson that it cooks too fast and gets rubbery. Bone-in is the way to go. Can’t get it falling-off-the-bone tender without a bone to fall off of.

**** I may help my diners by shredding the chicken before serving (my grandmother certainly doesn’t), but the rounds of corn are non-negotiable. Nibbling them is half the fun. (For a non-summer version of this soup, just leave the corn out.)

***** Every time I rake a fork through a handful of parsley or cilantro to get the leaves off the stalks, I think of John Kraemer, who taught me that quick and easy technique.


what are corn nuts?

crunchy toasted corn by velkr0 on flickr

cancha serrana by Dtarazona public domain on Wikimedia Commons

I only ate at my first Peruvian restaurant a couple of years ago, and the appetizer cancha seemed new and foreign, but somehow familiar. Then I realized its close relation to CornNuts. (When I was in school, I thought CornNuts were the most disgusting snack around, because every variety was coated in nasty flavor powder. I decided I could like plain cancha anyway.)

It appears that Albert Holloway, inventor of the CornNut, came up with his version without knowledge of the Andean snack, but when he learned about the large-kerneled variety used around Cusco, he brought it back to California to make bigger, better CornNuts.


corn and tomato tart

salad and tart

Last night, J-P and I swapped chores: he did the overdue laundry, I made a fancy dinner.

I got the recipe online a few years ago, probably after looking at yet another week’s delivery of CSA corn and tomatoes with a mixture of delight and despair. I’ve made it enough times at this point that it didn’t matter last night that I couldn’t find my printed recipe and couldn’t be bothered with looking it up online again. Here’s what I did:

  • Before work, take a bag of pie crust scraps from the freezer and put them in the fridge to thaw.
  • After work, roll out enough dough to form a 9-inch or so round.
  • Put the rolled dough back in the fridge; the rest goes back in the freezer.
  • Heat the oven to 350 F.
  • Heat some olive oil in a large pan.
  • Slice 3/4 of a large yellow onion, chop half a yellow bell pepper, and chop one small jalapeño.
  • Cook those in the olive oil with some salt until they are soft and sweet.
  • Slice the kernels off three ears of corn.
  • Add the corn to the pan and cook briefly, then let vegetables cool.
  • Slice one medium-large tomato.
  • Grate some cheese in the gruyère range. Last night I used an idiazabal.
  • Beat an egg with a little salt. (Are those veggies cooled yet?)
  • Dust a flat cookie sheet (no sides–I turn mine over for this) with cornmeal.
  • Put the crust on the cookie sheet.
  • Pile the corn-onion-pepper mixture (as much as you can fit) in the middle of the crust, leaving an inch or so bare around the edge. (Reserve the rest of the filling, or make less in the first place.)
  • Put tomato slices on top and sprinkle with cheese.
  • Pinch up the edges of the crust, then brush exposed crust with egg and sprinkle with cornmeal.
  • Bake about 40 minutes.
  • Top with fresh black pepper and serve.

The original recipe calls for a crust from a softer dough that contains cornmeal, but using what I had with a tactical dusting of cornmeal gave a pleasantly crunchy result. The original lacks peppers but has basil; we had peppers and lacked basil. The change gave just the tiniest hint of bite, not enough to mess with the tart’s otherwise delicate flavor.

The inside bottom crust came out a little damp from the huge pile of vegetables I put on top. Next time, I will poke holes in the bottom (it also inflated a bit), brush it with egg before adding the filling, and put a layer of tomato slices in the bottom before adding the corn-onion mixture.

Note that the filling is very loose and won’t hold together when the tart is cut. I don’t find it a problem, but if you do, I can think of two fixes. One, use less filling and hope the cheese on top acts as a binder. Two, add some beaten egg to the filling.


different ways of working the land

For my grandfather’s family, having a big backyard garden and traveling for seasonal farm work were ways to survive the lean first years of their immigration–and then the Great Depression. My grandfather was very young when they first set out along the central migrant corridor (they went from Houston up to Michigan and back, and elsewhere in central Texas), so his first memories of it are pretty happy: a city kid hanging out on a farm with his younger brother, playing a lot and earning an allowance that just covered a weekly walk to the movies by doing light work with dad in the fields. As he got older, the work got harder and he worried more, until he found himself “with no shoes on, up to the belly button in mud,” picking rice and plotting a way out.

He succeeded, and not surprisingly, my mother was a pure city girl. Or mostly–her parents did have a big front garden and often kept pigs, goats, or chickens at their house in Houston, and this was not unusual for their neighborhood. It took her some adapting when my dad, a mixed-up, rebellious city boy looking to fulfill his image of what a real Texan should be, moved us to the country and (again, not surprisingly) never really made a go of it on ten acres of hard red clay. I spent a lot of my childhood playing in their garden, picking wild berries, and walking through the countryside, trying–in retrospect–to find a way to belong to the situation I found myself in.

I gave it up and moved to the city. I taught dance classes and learned to hate food; after I quit that path, I found community gardening and a way to reconcile myself and food. I also found that I liked the physical work, at least as a respite from desk-bound life. I discovered that my reasons for being there weren’t necessarily everyone else’s reasons. I met activists who taught me about food deserts, Earth Mothers who planted by the moon, and antisocial ex-hippies who would have preferred their gardens without the community.

In East Wind Melts the Ice, Liza Dalby describes two of her friends who live in Tokyo but have rented a buckwheat field outside the city. They visit it once a month, but it is mostly worked by the pensioner who owns it.

‘Have you ever seen a field of buckwheat in bloom?’ asked Adachi.

I hadn’t.

‘At night, under moonlight, the white flowers glisten like stars. It is a strangely beautiful sight.’

… In industrialized countries like Japan and the United States, … {g}rowing your own buckwheat, grinding it, and making it into noodles can be enjoyable precisely because it is no longer a necessity.

Community gardening took me on a tour of gardens in Havana, where people were working the urban landscape to cope with the collapse of their food distribution systems. Though that was their overarching reason–necessity–they also talked about all the other reasons I’d heard people give for wanting to grow something on a little patch of dirt.

Yesterday J-P and I took a class at TechShop in Menlo Park, which meant a long bike ride from the Caltrain station. It took us through a neighborhood that reminded me a little of where my grandparents lived in Houston. Chilco Street took us along the train tracks behind that neighborhood, and from there you could clearly see some lush backyard cornfields. Exactly the kind of mini-milpa that all of the rural Guatemalans who told me about their plans for el norte said they would grow, because who would they, as hombres de maíz, be without homegrown corn?


My Caltrain reading, Steve Wilson’s The Boys from Little Mexico, gave me some more reasons people work the land, even though main subject is high school soccer in Woodburn, Oregon. Octavio clung to the turf nursery where his uncle and father worked as a way to feel comfortable in a new country. It was rural, which felt like home, and it had the rhythms of farm life that he was used to. It kept him from the need to interact with the rest of the town, where his inability to communicate was frustrating and where he feared detection and deportation. Cheo’s father worked the land to earn money for his family; he made Cheo do it so that Cheo would aspire to better work.

Some of these reasons are classic; some are surprising. Some are pure necessity; some pure pleasure. Most are a combination of the two, yet there is a remarkable disconnect in the US between people who care about food and the land for reasons of pleasure and those who grow food and work the land for reasons of necessity. Farm labor is an issue that hardly occurs to most people who claim to be interested in food issues; for me, they are inseparable.


calabacitas: Spanish for “a tremendous amount of chopping”

Or Spanish for “making it up as you go.” (Actually, Spanish for “little squashes.” As opposed to big ones, calabazas, which are pumpkins, winter squash, and so on.)

Recipe by request. Yield: enough for an army (4 as a main, 8 as a side); witness this photo of half the yield left in the pan.


  • cooking fat
  • 2 large onions
  • peppers, bell and hot (here, 1 large red bell, a handful of pickled jalapeos, and some red pepper flakes)
  • 6 small summer squash (in this case crooknecks between 4 and 7 inches)
  • 4 large ears corn
  • herbs (here, a small bunch of garlic chives and the leaves off two big sprigs of basil; you can substitute oregano, cilantro, regular chives, cloves of garlic)
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • cumin
  • cream, milk, or water

Dice everything small (it helps to have two people working on this). Cut the kernels off the ears of corn. Heat the fat, then add the onions and any fresh peppers, plus some salt, to cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions start to go translucent. Add the squash and some salt and cook, stirring occasionally, another 5 minutes of so. Add any pickled or dried peppers, herbs, spices, more salt, and the corn, stirring to incorporate. Pour in enough cream (or milk, or water) to moisten thoroughly, but don’t make it soupy. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 5 minutes or so. If the liquid is more watery than saucy when you take the lid off, remove most of the solids and cook the sauce down. (Last night we didn’t bother, partly because the sauce was reasonably thick, partly because there was just so many vegetable in the pan.)

Smoke-dried tomatoes from Boggy Creek Farm in Texas (Austin and Milam County) are an excellent addition. If you’re going to make this dish vegan, I’d go so far as to say they’re a necessity.

We finished with individual blueberry pies from Natalie of Bike Basket Pies and chocolate ice cream from Bi Rite.


Maker Foode

J-P, Glenn, and I went to Maker Faire in San Mateo yesterday. Highlights included the bike area, with Cyclecide’s pedal-powered carnival rides, Oakland’s own scraper bikes, and a tandem unicycle; the darkened building with singing Tesla coils, a neon land shark, and MonkeyLectric’s programmable Lite Brites for your bicycle wheels; and TechShop’s building, which made us eager for their San Francisco opening this summer.

And then there was the food. Fair food has gotten a lot better since I was a kid.

My Pica Pica “maize’wich,” a fresh-corn pancake filled with black beans, plantains, cheddar, and Tapatío:

Gerard’s Paella:

Featuring a paellera with its own license plate:

And TechShop’s lasers expand the options for cascarones:

There was also a lemonade stand that blew my mind. Besides lemonade and limeade, it offered fresh watermelon juice and hibiscus tea. Taken together, the menu screamed “aguas frescas” to me, but the menu was all in English. Crazy.

More Maker Faire photos and videos here.

Tex-Mix's Photostream