The word “nixtamalization” is a mouthful, for sure. But the process – which involves cooking and steeping dried corn kernels in an alkaline solution like limewater before hulling them – increases how much protein, calcium and niacin (vitamin B3) a body can pull from a mouthful of maize, and reduces toxins that can make stored grain go bad.
Dusty Dowse, director of education and resident baking adviser at the Maine Grain Alliance, says the slightly nutty, somewhat mineral-like flavor of nixtamalized whole corn kernels (called mote, hominy or posole) or ground meal (wet masa paste or dried grits) is pleasantly unique, a driving force behind corn being prepared in this fashion for over 3,000 years in the Americas.
In the baking kitchen lab at Southern Maine Community College earlier this month, Dowse walked three dozen farmers, scientists, bakers, food manufacturers and home cooks through the nixtamalization process and subsequent grinding of the mote into masa. Lynne Rowe, owner of Portland’s Tortilleria Pachanga, who is well-versed in nixtamalized corn as she uses it to make thousands of tortillas weekly, oversaw the communal exercise of making piles of them from several varieties of corn grown in Maine.
The workshop was part of the Maine Grain Alliance’s continuing initiative to reinvigorate the state’s corn crop by positioning it as so much more than cattle feed. These corns differ from the sweet variety we eat off the cob as a vegetable in the height of summer, because they are inedible unless they are processed by nixtamalization or dried and ground into meal.
The most common heritage corn product found in Maine that we humans can eat is cornmeal, which is simply finely or coarsely ground flint corn. A growing number of growers and millers offer it, including Fairwinds Farm in Bowdoinham, Maine Grains in Skowhegan and Songbird Farm in Unity. The plan, as explained by the alliance’s executive director Tristan Noyes, is to build a market for value-added products made from heritage corn varieties grown in Maine so that local farmers will find it worth their while to cultivate those varieties.
“If we lose the corn, we’re all going down the tubes,” said corn keeper Albie Barden of Norridgewock. Barden offered everyone in the room 12 Darwin John kernels, the multicolored Indian corn variety that can be traced back to the Iroquois, so we could all try our hands at growing heritage corn ourselves.
To make the masa, Dowse prepped 2 pounds each of dried dent (standard field corn that gets its name from the small indentation at the crown of each kernel) and Garland variety flint corn, which was donated by Barden. He simmered each batch of corn in a solution of 3 quarts boiling water, 1/2 cup slaked lime and 2 teaspoons salt for 20 minutes. Then he let the corn steep overnight.
The next day, students took turns washing the mote, removing the individual skins by rubbing the kernels round and round a colander and rinsing them multiple times in bowls of cold water so the skins and other inedible bits floated off the top. Attendees used a hand mill to grind the mote into masa, rolling the wet corn paste into golf-ball sized portions, then using wooden presses – which Rowe bought in Mexico – to flatten them into rounds. They then cooked the tortillas on an ungreased griddle.
From start to finish, the process took some 12 hours. Perhaps only a zealot would do it at home. But through the workshop, the Maine Grain Alliance hopes to seed a bigger market by demonstrating to local culinary influencers ways to use Maine-grown flint corn.
As points of reference, attendees also made tortillas from commercial masa harina (masa paste that has been dried and very finely ground) and run-of-the-mill all-purpose wheat flour. I am pretty sure the organizers knew they’d stacked the tortilla tasting so that we’d all prefer those made from local corn. But to seal the deal, Dowse made a pot of posole chili to fill the corn tortillas.
Most of the tasters I spoke with went away sold on the renewed value of growing – and eating – heritage corn in Maine.
Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester and a cooking teacher in Brunswick. Contact her at: cburns1227@ gmail.com.
RECIPE: MUSSELS AND LOCAL CORNMEAL MUSH
I first ate grits while living in England in 2007. I’d befriended a woman named Weezie Boiles from Birmingham, Alabama, who landed in the East Anglian city of Norwich, as did I, due to our husbands’ academic pursuits. She was astounded I’d never had Southern grits, telling me that my Italian heritage’s polenta just didn’t cut it. While my Nonna made her cornmeal mush with just salted water, Weezie’s had cream, butter and cheese – and the secret ingredient, ground nixtamalized corn. I didn’t have true grits again until I went to Charleston two years ago. I’ve yet to find raw grits here in Maine, but I have adapted my family’s polenta recipe to Weezie’s richer technique, which certainly does justice to the local, heritage variety cornmeal I can readily get my hands on. I make the mush with a mix of smoked cheddar and local Alpine cheese.
FOR THE CORNMEAL MUSH:
3 cups vegetable stock
11/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
11/4 cups dry, stone-ground yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup grated semi-hard cheese
FOR THE MUSSELS:
2 slices bacon
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 pounds mussels, rinsed and debearded
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup chopped canned tomatoes
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup chopped parsley
To make the mush, combine the stock, salt and pepper in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and bring the liquid to a rolling boil over high heat. Slowly whisk in the cornmeal, stirring constantly. Lower the heat to medium and continue to stir. Cook until the polenta is soft and creamy, 12-15 minutes. Stir in the cream. Take the pot off the heat, stir in butter and cheese. Season with more salt and pepper, if needed. Cover to keep warm.
To make the mussels, fry the bacon over medium high heat in a large pot until browned, remove it from the pan and drain well on a paper bag. Chop the cooled bacon and set it aside. Add the onion and garlic to the hot bacon grease. Sauté for 2 minutes. Add the mussels, wine, tomatoes and lemon juice. Stir, cover and steam until the mussels open, 4-6 minutes. Discard any mussels that have not opened. Stir in the parsley and reserved bacon. Serve over warm mush.