Nixtamalnutrition

One of the most troubling aspects of home isolation is that it compels you to indulge your worst food-nerd impulses. I was lying in bed this morning thinking about actually making puff pastry, for example.

Unable to pop out on my various weekly forays to my favorite ethnic markets (“How is he sourcing green papaya without access to the Island Pacific Indonesian market!?” you’re probably wondering…), I find myself lurking about food websites, coveting assorted sundries but bristling at exorbitant shipping costs.

The marketers are smart. They have collected enough data on me to know exactly where and when to strike. So it was that I received an email from Anson Mills, my favorite artisanal grain mill (do you have a favorite artisanal grain mill!??) in South Carolina. There were lots of wonderful seasonal products they knew I needed. But none so essential to my current housebound predicament as dried hominy corn and calcium hydroxide (i.e. “lime”).

Among those food-nerd thresholds I had yet to cross was nixtamalization. I had just received, as a pandemic present to myself, Enrique Olvera’s new beautiful Phaidon cookbook, “Mi Casa Tu Casa,” in which the celebrated Mexican chef goes into some depth about the process of making masa, the cornmeal essential to tortillas. I had made homemade corn tortillas many times, but always with masa harina — pre-ground, instant corn dough produced in an industrial process with commercial corn. The product was always good, yet nothing — Olvera assured me — but a shadow of what you got with heirloom corn varieties produced in the traditional method. The eerily coincidental timing of the Anson Mills email (sucker) made me realize the time to take the nixtamal plunge was now.

It took a couple weeks for my Henry Moore varietal field-ripened corn and bag of lime to arrive. Soon the kitchen was filled with the comforting smell of corn steeping in burbling lime water. The next day, I summoned Flynn who helped with making masa balls and pressing them flat in the tortilla press. I had to overcome the technical obstacle of not having a fancy Molinito masa grinder, which was accomplished with the Vitamix and more water than is preferable — resulting in the need to add some masa harina after all to get the proper consistency. That night, we enjoyed spectacular Baja fish tacos and chile verde tacos, wrapped in our own deliciously rustic, corn-fragrant tortillas. A few days later, Flynn and I got in the kitchen and did it all over again.

I was now in deep. But there was further to go…

Enrique Olvera buys his hominy from Masienda — a company that has single-handedly rescued an array of nearly extinct heirloom corn varietals from Oaxaca and other points deepest Mexico. I went to masienda.com, and I didn’t stand a chance.

When I can get stacks of 50 decent, freshly made corn tortillas for $2 at the Vallarta market, is it really worth spending $13.50 plus $18 shipping and several days’ work to make my own stack of 30 heirloom varietal corn tortillas. What do you think?

Next stop: puff pastry.

Eating Oaxaca

Oaxaca, they say, is the culinary capital of Mexico. I was eager to put this to the test.

I am still digesting Mexico City tacos when we arrive and check into our hotel. But my pal Mike rouses me from a brief respite on my bed that could’ve easily turned into an evening in, and we are soon walking the beautiful historic streets of the old center of Oaxaca city. More

In the Mexican Kitchen

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It all started, as it often does, with a big chunk of pork.

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Pork shoulder, that is — my favorite cut. It was on sale at the grocery store, so I bought it, thinking I might prepare something Mexican. Maybe carnitas, maybe chile verde, maybe cochinita pibil. More

The Best Taco in Jalisco

When I go to Puerto Vallarta on the Mexican state of Jalisco’s Pacific shore, I am driven by a memory.

Many years ago, visiting the area with my pal Gary, I had what may have been the best taco of my life.

Al pastor at Pepe's Tacos, Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico

Al pastor at Pepe’s Tacos, Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico

“I’m not eating there,” Gary said as I made a bee-line for the grimy little sidewalk stand, feeding more flies than patrons, bottles of crema baking in the sun. I smelled fish tacos.

“Dos, por favor,” I told the leathery woman dropping fillets into oil. More

Tacotopia, Episode #2: The Taco Takes Texas

Though Texas is, like California, a border state, I don’t really associate it with tacos. Sizzlin’ pans of fajita chicken with bell peppers, yes — but not so much the humble and extraordinary taco.

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Last April, I made a Texas smoked brisket for my daughter Willa’s ninth birthday party. No, she did not ask for a brisket — I just thought it was a good idea. What little girl doesn’t dream of smoked brisket for her birthday?

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