Tag Archives: corn

GOODBYE TO CHILDHOOD

This week’s family Sunday dinner was different. I was excused from any cooking. The reason for the change of routine is that daughter Carol planned a very special dinner of all of her daughter’s favorite foods. Our oldest grandchild will be heading off to college this next week. She will be 2500 miles away on the East Coast so it is not likely she will get to enjoy Mom’s home cooking sooner than the holidays. Our granddaughter is very excited for this new adventure although she’s also a little anxious about the prospects of being so far from a “real beach.” An equal reality is that Mom will no longer get to cook for her daughter.

Here’s the menu: goat cheese, crackers and crudités, barbecued brisket, Hawaiian rolls,  “corny corn,”caprese salad, watermelon,  nectarine fruit salad, and red velvet cake for dessert. The meal was a huge success because everything on the menu is a family favorite. Carol used her own recipe for the brisket: she starts the meat on the stove in a Cameron smoker primed with wood chips, then transfers it to a slow oven for several hours, and then finishes it on the backyard grill.  I’ve written about Susan’s brisket recipe here. That recipe is easy and delicious. The brisket can be cut with a fork, and the juices can be turned into a fragrant, flavorful pan sauce. Carol’s “corny corn” is best made with fresh corn cut from the cob. The summer season is perfect for that. Corn cut from six ears is sautéed in six tablespoons of butter, seasoned with salt and pepper along with the juice and zest of two limes, mixed with a half cup of mayonnaise and about two cups of grated Cheddar cheese, topped with  a cup of toasted panko and more Cheddar and grated Parmesan cheese, and then browned under the broiler.   The salad was a caprese with slices of  mozzarella layered with basil and chunks of tomato from the farmers market. My granddaughter’s favorite ingredient in the salad is the balsamic vinegar. Chilled watermelon and a nectarine fruit salad were also on the buffet.  As if that was not enough food, there was still dessert. We’ve been enjoying red velvet cake, aka Waldorf Astoria cake, since days on the farm years ago when Aunt Mary regaled us with the story, undoubtedly apocryphal, of a friend who talked her waiter in the restaurant at that fabled hotel into mailing the recipe for the cake. When the friend received the envelope, she found the recipe and a bill for $200. We have laughed at that story for years, and we are always reminded of it, Aunt Mary, and the farm whenever we get to enjoy a slice of red velvet cake.

My contribution to the feast was restricted to a big bag of Kettle® sea salt and vinegar potato chips (no other brand will do). I have bought many a small bag over the years as an after-school treat for our granddaughter since she was a little girl. They remain her favorite snack.

The next few days in Carol’s household will be filled with stories, memories, and warm words as they pack up new clothes and special treasures. Soon enough there will also be a few tears. I remember saying goodbye to my mother as I boarded the train in a freak September snow storm, and I remember getting Carol situated in her dorm room as if it were yesterday. Sending a child off to college is one of the saddest, happiest, proudest moments in life. We will all remember Carol’s farewell banquet for years to come.

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QUINOA, MUSHROOM, CORN AND THREE-BEAN SALAD

In my last post, I mentioned that I had been charged with salad for a dinner party. The main course was going to be barbecued ribs. Potato salad seemed out as too heavy. Besides I wasn’t sure if someone else would bring that. It’s also no longer the season for pasta salad, so I thought about one of my old favorites, three-bean salad. Someone reminded me that it seemed sort of old-fashioned, but it still sounded good to me. Then I thought about quinoa. Light, refreshing, and a little bit unusual. I usually make it with gandules or pigeon peas, but they were nowhere to be found in the local markets, so I reconsidered the three-bean salad and decided to combine my two top options.

If you have never cooked with quinoa, you will find it to be an amazing ingredient. It is a seed that comes from plants originally grown in South America but now cultivated throughout the world. It is used like a grain, but it is not a grain so it does not have the gluten that so many people worry about these days. It is rich in protein and reportedly has all of the essential amino acids, so it certainly sounds healthy. You do need to be aware that it is also loaded with saponins. These are naturally occurring detergents that make the quinoa taste soapy if you don’t wash them off. Many pre-packaged quinoa products have had the saponin removed, but the detergent may still be present in bulk quinoa. In either case, it is probably a good idea to rinse the quinoa before you cook it. You can do this easily by placing the amount you plan to use in a fine-mesh strainer and rinse it under a spray of cold water until all of the foam subsides – maybe a minute or so. Drain it well and get ready to cook it.  Besides being tasty, cooked quinoa is also beautiful. The seeds burst open and reveal a delicate little curl. My wife, the botanist, is not sure but thinks the curl is probably the endosperm.

Except for cooking the quinoa and preparing pickled mushrooms (as I described in my last post) this is pretty much a chop and dump recipe, so it is very easy to prepare.

 

RECIPES

Quinoa, Mushroom, Corn and Three-Bean Salad

Ingredients

  • 1 cup washed quinoa
  • 2 cups water
  • salt and white pepper
  • 1 batch pickled mushrooms (see recipe in previous post)
  • ½ red onion, diced
  • ¼ cup each, green, red, yellow, and orange bell peppers, diced
  • ½ cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen, cooked and drained
  • 14.5 ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 14.5 ounce can red or pinto beans, drained and rinsed
  • 14.5 ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
  • vinaigrette (recipe below)

Method

  1. In a small saucepan, bring the water to a boil and stir in the quinoa. Return to the boil, cover, and reduce heat to the simmer. Simmer for 15 minutes. The seeds should have absorbed all of the water, burst open, and tender. If they are not cooked, remove the lid and boil gently until all of the water is absorbed. Season with salt and white pepper, drain, cool, and place in a large bowl.
  2. Stir in the mushrooms, red onion, diced bell peppers,  canned beans, corn, and cherry tomatoes.
  3. Dress the salad to taste with 4 to 6 tablespoons of vinaigrette. Chill until ready to serve.

Vinaigrette

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • ¼ teaspoon dry mustard
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • salt and pepper
  • 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Method

  1. In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, mustard, garlic powder, and salt and pepper
  2. Very slowly, a few drops at a time, whisk in the olive oil to form an emulsion.
  3. If the sauce separates, whisk it together again before dressing the salad.

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HOW TO MAKE A HOT TORTILLA

If you have never eaten a freshly made tortilla, you do not know what you have been missing. Home-made tortillas are to the ones you buy in the supermarket like a slice of home-baked bread compared with the white-bread dough balls you also buy in the supermarket.

Fortunately, modernity has had an impact on tortilla making. If you had been a Native American making tortillas years ago, you would have had to make hominy or posole by mixing dried corn with wood ash, washing off the husks, and then grinding the still-damp corn kernels. Then you would mix that with a little salt (maybe) and knead it with a little water to the right consistency to form masa – literally  “dough”  to make tortillas, arepas, papusas, etc. These days, all you have to do is buy a sack of masa harina de maiz para tortillas y tamales (The package may have all or only some of these words – don’t worry, buy it.) The two most common brands in the USA are Quaker and Maseca. Masa harina or masa flour is actually dried masa which only needs water to form the dough.

Even though making the dough is easy, you may need some special equipment to make perfect tortillas. Of course experienced Mexican and Native American cooks just pat out perfectly round tortillas between their two hands. That expertise comes only from years of practice, so consider using some simple and inexpensive assistive devices.

Cast metal tortilla press made in Mexico

Cast metal tortilla press made in Mexico

First is the tortilla press. Several models are available in cooking shops or from the internet. The one I use was made in Mexico of cast iron. Some versions are made from wood; some have non-stick surfaces. They will probably cost around $20. If you don’t want to invest in one, you can use a small length of 2 inch PVC pipe as a sort of rolling-pin. With practice, that works OK, but it’s still not as good or easy as a press.

Second is the plastic protector. If you try to make tortillas on a bare press surface, they will probably stick – even with the “non-stick” variety – so you need plastic from which you can peel off the tortilla. I use a plastic sandwich bag. With a sharp knife, open the sides of the bag. Do not slit open the bottom fold of the bag. That way you will have a long, narrow plastic sheet with a fold in the middle. This will cost only about 2 cents or so.

Cast iron comal made in Mexico

Cast iron comal made in Mexico

Third is the comal. This is a round cast-iron pan with low sides. Mine is from Mexico. You can buy a similar one from a kitchen store or from the internet for around $20. You can also use a cast-iron skillet. The important thing is that the pan holds heat, so a light weight pan won’t work as well, and a non-stick pan really isn’t needed.

Ball of masa sandwiched in the prepared bag, ready to be pressed

Ball of masa sandwiched in the prepared bag, ready to be pressed

Another perfect tortilla ready to be baked

Another perfect tortilla ready to be baked

A pressed tortilla ready to be tranferred from the plastic to the palm of the hand and then the hot comal

A pressed tortilla ready to be transferred from the plastic to the palm of the hand and then the hot comal

RECIPE

Ingredients

  • 2 cups masa harina
  • 1 1/3 cups warm water
  • ½ teaspoon salt
Freshly-pressed tortilla baking on the hot comal

Freshly-pressed tortilla baking on the hot comal

Flipped over to be baked on the second side, this tortilla shows the color and brown spots from a well-heated comal

Flipped over to be baked on the second side, this tortilla shows the color and brown spots from a well-heated comal

Method

  • Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl. Stir until completely combined into a soft dough. If the flour does not all come together, add a few drops of additional water.
  • Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 30 minutes. This will allow the water to be completely absorbed make a smoother masa. If the masa is still crumbly, you can add a few more drops of water. Just be judicious in your additions, because you don’t want the masa to be too soft.
  • When you are ready to make the tortillas, remove the plastic wrap, knead the masa gently a few times, and then divide the dough into 12 equal-sized pieces. For more precision, you can weigh them (Each individual ball should weigh 1/12th of the weight of the total ball), but that may seem too compulsive.
  • One at a time, remove the pieces of dough, recovering the others with plastic film. Roll the dough into a ball
  • Prepare the tortilla press by covering the opened press with the prepared plastic sandwich bag. Then place the ball of dough in the  center of the bottom plate of the press. Cover with the flap of the sandwich bag, cover with the free plate of the press, and press down smoothly with the lever of the press.
  • Remove the plastic with the pressed tortilla from the press. Turn the tortilla into your hand, and then transfer gently to the middle of the comal which has been pre-heated over a medium-high flame.
  • Bake for about 30 seconds or until the underside is a light toasty color with dark brown flecks. Turn over and bake for another 30 seconds or so. The tortilla may puff up during the baking. That’s good. You can use a pancake turner to flatten the tortilla against the surface of the comal to make sure that the whole surface of the tortilla is baked.
  • Adjust the heat under the comal if the tortillas burn or do not bake quickly enough.
  • Press one tortilla while the previous one is baking. Continue the process until all of the dough balls have been used.
  • Keep the baked tortillas warm in a folded tea towel or in a special tortilla warmer. Serve immediately.
Insulated cloth tortilla warmer - slip warm tortillas into a slot on the side as you make them

Insulated cloth tortilla warmer – slip warm tortillas into a slot on the side as you make them

Stacking tortillas with cheese in preparation for huevos rancheros

Stacking tortillas with cheese in preparation for huevos rancheros

Once you get them baked, just slather them with butter and eat while warm. They are delicious that way, but they also make great huevos rancheros.

Huevos rancheros with black beans - there is no better breakfast

Huevos rancheros with black beans – there is no better breakfast

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A SHORT HISTORY OF CORN

A couple of years ago, my two daughters and I started a book about corn (maize) to include recipes for a wide range of corn-based breads from around the world. The project bogged down when I started writing a blog, but we plan to revive our effort. Here is a short excerpt from the introduction. It may be more than you want to know about corn (maize), but I hope that you will find it interesting.

Nearly every American  school child knows that when the Europeans first came to the New World, they found a virtual cornucopia of foods which they had never seen or tasted before.  The explorers took back to their homeland many foods that soon became imbedded in cuisines in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Of these edibles, eight of the current 26 top crops by tonnage have become essential to many diets, and include maize (called corn in the United States and other English-speaking countries), potatoes, tomatoes, chiles, peanuts, manioc, chocolate and vanilla, and sweet potatoes. Other important New World contributions to the global diet included beans, squash, turkeys, pineapple, and avocado, along with numerous herbs, fruits, and nuts.  Of these foods, undoubtedly corn has become the most important for providing nutrition and calories throughout the world and in all socio-economic situations.  To support this contention, consider that corn (or maize) is grown on all of the inhabited continents, China grows more corn than any other country, and corn-based dishes are served in China, India, Africa, England, France, Italy, and all of the countries of Central and South America. Refined corn is used for cooking oil, sugar substitute, and food additives. Corn serves as a major food source for animals raised a sources of meat. It is an integral and essential part of nearly every human’s diet.

History of cultivation

Maize (corn) was domesticated nearly 9,000 years ago by people living in the region of what is now the Mexican states of Michoacán, Guerrero, and Mexico. Like all modern food grains, it arose from a wild grass – in this case a large grass, Balsas teosinte, that even to this day grows in the Central Balsas River Valley. 

Balsas teosinteAlthough no one knows exactly how or how long the process of domestication developed, clever modern breeding studies have produced hybrids of teosinte and maize that give us an idea of what some of the grains may have looked like along the way.

teosinte and maize cobsIt is clear that both the Aztecs and Mayas consumed domesticated maize, and archeological records document that domestic corn spread to Panama by 7,600 years ago and to Uruguay by 4,600 years ago. Later, domesticated corn spread throughout both North and South America so that it was an important part of the diet of the native peoples throughout the New World when the Europeans arrived. The European explorers took back seed grain, and the cultivation of corn spread quickly throughout Europe and then into Africa and Asia. This rapid acceptance occurred  largely because of ease of cultivation, wide range of favorable growing conditions, and usefulness as a basic foodstuff. Now virtually every culture in the world depends upon corn and has unique and traditional dishes based upon the grain.

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