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.

The World’s Most Dangerous Foods

One of my favorite places to be is in the coastal Mexican town of Puerto Vallarta with one of my favorite people, my pal Donnie. Admittedly, we haven’t been there in a few years. But I still think of our times there often.

One of our favorite things to do in Puerto Vallarta is to stop under a bridge on the beach route from the house into town and eat raw oysters and patas negras — blood clams — on the half shell. Blood clams — this was something I had never seen before. Housed in a dusky black and gray shell, these bivalves actually have hemoglobin, which makes them a bit, well… bloody. But they are also bloody delicious, and Donnie and I would eat them every chance we got.

Patas negras under the bridge

A couple days ago, I was marketing in the valley and stopped by my favorite Indonesian market. (Do YOU have a favorite Indonesian market where you live!??) And what should I discover in a pile of ice in the seafood section but BLOOD CLAMS! I purchased a dozen, and promptly texted Donnie:

“I got you something special. Because you are my friend and I love you.”

Donnie and I operate on a special wavelength — food. So I knew that he knew it was going to be something good. Then I sent him a photo.

“I guess I better plan to come see you soon.”

Donnie eating a pata negra in Mexico

We made dinner plans with the Schneiders — Don and wife Monica, sans their kids and our kids, who used to be a fun addition to our evenings together but are now teenagers.

I was in the kitchen prior to their arrival, and pulled out the clams. I thought I would prep them in advance, so that when they arrived, I could present a platter of beautiful, dressed bloody clams. Beautiful, at least, to Donnie and my eyes. Lacking experience shucking blood clams, I went to the computer to see if there was any particular trick I should know about. But my Google search brought up something startling. Several of the top ten hits had the same title: “The World’s Most Dangerous Foods”. A couple had the variation: “Foods You Should Never Eat & Why.”

I once did a series of posts on this very blog called “Things You Would Never Consider Putting In Your Mouth (And Why You Should)”. As trying exotic foods go, I’m pretty unskittish. I’ve not merely tried grasshoppers in Mexico — I’ve intentionally ordered them. Aside from Iceland’s popular rotting shark and Japan’s fermented squid guts, there’s pretty much nothing I won’t try out of the ocean. But this had me a little nervous.

According to Salon’s top ten list: “…the blood clam can ingest viruses and bacteria including hepatitis A, typhoid and dysentery because it lives in lower oxygen environments.” Another website cautioned: “In 1988, 31 people died from eating these clams. 15% of people who consume blood clams gain some sort of infection.”

Donnie and me in Mexico doing the Patas Negras Dance after we’ve eaten our fill

Further research revealed that problematic blood clams had originated in Asia, and those from Mexico — where I’d eaten them many times, and from where the ones in the kitchen hailed — were considered “generally” safe. The Asian variety are banned in the United States. Furthermore, also included on the list of “most dangerous foods” were things like raw cashews and cassava — not exactly panic-inducing exotic delicacies. Nonetheless, the platter of bleeding bivalves in the kitchen were looking less appealing than they had been just a few minutes before. And I wasn’t feeling like playing the odds.

“Where are the clams?” Donnie inquired when he arrived a little while later.

I pointed out the window to the woods beside our house, and then explained. I would let the coyotes and bobcats fight over them, and if in the ensuing weeks I discovered no wildlife staggering through the trees in a hepatatic stupor, perhaps I would revisit the Indonesian market and give them another try. Or, more likely, I would wait until the next time I was under the bridge in Puerto Vallarta.

Fortunately, the sting of not getting his clams was alleviated when I presented Donnie with a beautifully composed plate of plump red prawn ceviche — less exotic, perhaps, but enjoyed without any looming sense of doom.

Tacos on the Mesa

My children have all attended our local community school — Flynn, now 15, is in high school, his sister Willa, 13, is in middle school, and Imogen — the youngest at 8 — is our last kid at Topanga Elementary.

Vaquero Colgin on the Mesa

Each year, there is a fundraiser to raise money for the school, in the form of an event/dinner/auction. In the past, themes have included “1970s (roller girls and disco),” “1980s (hairspray, lots of pink and purple),” with live bands to match, “Totally Topanga” in which you were supposed to dress up in hippy garb, I suppose. One event was held at a spectacular mountain-top midcentury modern with views of city, ocean and islands, and Chris Robinson from the Black Crowes performing; another particularly unsuccessful version was held in a Marriott ballroom near the airport.

I provided food for two of these events — the decades ones, in fact — turning out pizzas and cowboy ribeyes from a wood-fired outdoor oven at the 70s event, and fancy small plate courses for the 80s. This year, after a decade being asked and politely declining, I finally joined our school’s version of the PTA. And was promptly asked to produce the entire event.

 

Don Schneider at the Santa Maria grill

Having attended nearly a dozen such fundraisers in the past, I was able to consider what I liked and didn’t like about previous events, and what I might do we’re I the one in charge (which I now was). One thing I didn’t so much enjoy about the past events was what often felt to me like rigid scheduling by a Type A event producer — cocktails at 5:45, dinner at 6:15, live auction at 7, dessert at 8… etc. At the prior events where I had cooked, I could tell I was causing great anxiety with my general indifference to schedules. (“I’m not serving dinner yet, it’s not done!”)

I’m decidedly Type B. And I host pretty good parties. So I simply decided to throw a great party. The date was already set at May 4. A day before Cinco de Mayo. And so we would jump the holiday and do Quatro de Mayo. I had a theme!

Our event would take place on a wild and remote plateau in the canyon called “The Mesa,” where my friends Sue and Martin have a ranch where we had once done a very successful pop-up restaurant fundraiser.

The very first, most important thing to do was to find and hire a good mariachi band. I called some an amigo, was directed to one band but they were busy. So a whole lot of internet research later, I hired Mariachi Mexico de Sylmar. They looked great in photos in their matching mariachi garb, the band’s leader was named, “Nacho.” I was hopeful.

Next was to secure a Santa Maria grill belonging to a Topanga old timer, and plan my menu. In terms of people pleasing, there are few certainties in life as solid as the taco. For two days prior to the event, I drove around the San Fernando Valley with the school credit card, made salsas, slow roasted a cochinita pibil, delivered several large briskets to my pal, Desmond, a Texan with a nimble finger at the smoker. The food gods were smiling and the stars were aligning.

When hosting, as opposed to simply cooking, there are many things to consider besides tortillas and salsas. Toilets, for example. How to get the deluxe VIP restroom trailer I rented up the twisty road and onto the uneven event site. What to do when it is delivered to the wrong part of the event site. (Because we didn’t want our toilets right in the middle of the dining and auction area.) How to get lights to the event. How to get WiFi so we could check people in and swipe their credit cards. What to do when your friend who has graciously donated her ranch decides she doesn’t want drunk people driving back down that twisty road and so you must figure out another way to get your guests there. Now I’m an artist, mind you — this is not my comfort zone. But it was good to stretch my logistics muscle and realize that I was capable when pressed into duty.

I assembled my A-team of helpers — including pal Katy, my don’t-drink-too-much-while-you-cook minder, who’s daughter Lucy produced a lovely assembly of Mexican sweets for dessert. (A portion of the meal I usually don’t devote too much thought to.) A mountain of mesquite set ablaze promised good things to come.

It was a perfect evening on the Mesa — a Western sun warming the sandstone and sage as it settled toward the ridge, the horse stables and dusty corral area where we held the event decorated with piñatas, papel picado and hay bales covered in colorful Mexican blankets. Trumpets and violins set a decidedly festive atmosphere as Nacho and his band of eight struck up the nostalgic sound of mariachi, and the first shuttles began delivering guests

Behind the grill, we poured ourselves some Pacifico from the keg, sipped a little mezcal and got to work. And the tacos? Even after Katy accidentally spilled two thirds of my key salsa, the results did not disappoint. Desmond’s brisket never fails to elicit lustful sighs — and there was some talk of taking the Colgin-and-Burrows taco show on the road. Crispy tlayudas, a specialty of Oaxaca slathered with lard and black beans, was another hit.

*    *    *

The evening’s reviews were extremely positive — the venue was enchanting, the band fantastic and the food unforgettable. How about the hosting? Well, I suppose if you do your job correctly, people don’t even notice the hosting…

La Ruta

I was recently in Mexico — again. (My brother when he later saw me asked, “Do you have your Mexican citizenship yet?”)

This time, it was with the family — and two of my favorite other families. My birthday this year happened to coincide with the kids’ spring break. So what better opportunity to rent a beautiful beach house half an hour south of the border to relax, cook, eat, sip tequila and celebrate?

The girls in the Valle de Guadalupe

One of the main attractions of the trip was going to be a visit to the much heralded Valle de Guadalupe — Baja Mexico’s buzzy wine region, extolled in publications from the New York Times to Wine Spectator. I’d been reading about the valley for years, had tried many of the wines, and was looking forward to a visit. More

A Roundabout Route to Baccalà Mantecato

My local Vallarta Mexican grocery store never ceases to surprise and amaze me.

First of all, it’s just darned cool to have a market that actually feels — smells, sounds, visuals — like you are in Mexico. And in that regard, I have yet to need a Mexican cooking ingredient that I can’t find there.

Secondly, I find countless ingredients I need for other cuisines — the fine tripe they have, for example, that I need (yes, need) for trippa alla Romana, and a dazzling variety of fresh herbs.

Newfoundland salt cod illustration from the 1700s

A recent happy discovery was baccalà, also known as bacalao, also known as salt cod — not something I ever associated with Mexican cooking. In the past, I’ve had to travel to a Spanish purveyor in Harbor City (a heck of a drive to non-Angelenos) or wait until I’m in San Francisco to visit North Beach’s famous deli, Molinari, to get some. Not only does Vallarta have beautiful European baccala, but it’s considerably less expensive than at either of those other places. More

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