Corn Recipes

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In and of itself, maize (corn) is a rather poor food source as in an unprocessed state the grains are deficient in free niacin (vitamin B3), an essential nutrient for health.  As a result, eating a diet primarily made of ground, raw maize leads to a number of complications, not the least being pellagra, a condition leading to diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia and ultimately death. 

The native peoples of North America discovered that these problems could be alleviated through a process called ‘nixtamalization’.  Developed in Central America at least 3500 years ago, in this process maize kernels are soaked in hot, alkaline water, with the alkalinity coming usually from either the calcium hydroxide (via picking/slaked lime) or the potassium hydroxide (via wood ash).  During cooking and soaking the maize hulls are partially dissolved and loosen, with calcium or potassium (depending upon the alkalinity source) being absorbed into the grain.  In nixtamal made using slaked lime an almost ten-fold increase in calcium occurs in the cooked grains. Starch within the kernels swells and gelatinizes, with some dissolving into the cooking liquid (called nejayote).  The kernel’s proteins are also altered, allowing them to be made more accessible to the human body.  The chemical changes not only greatly improve the flavor of the maize kernels but also allow the ground grains to form a plastic moldable dough.  Without nixtamalization, many of our favorite Central American foods like tortillas, tamales, and sopes would simply be impossible to make. 

When maize cultivation spread throughout the world following European contact with the Americas, the cultural information regarding nixtamalization in generally did not follow.  As a result, in places where unprocessed ground cornmeal became the dominant source for calories (such as 19th Century France, Italy, and US Deep South, and parts of modern Egypt, South Africa and India), pellagra outbreaks became common. 

If you grow maize for food, nixtamalization should thus become one of your common kitchen tasks.  It has the added advantage of allowing you to use your field corn for more than just autumnal decorations. 

Note that flint/sweet/pop corns are not best suited to nixtamalization, though it certainly can be done with them.  Rather, you are best off using flour or dent corns.

4 quarts water
1/3 cup pickling lime (calcium hydroxide)
2 quarts dry corn

Bring water and lime to boil in a large enamel or stainless steel pot.  When it reaches a boil, add in the corn.  Bring back to a boil, stirring occasionally.  Remove from heat and let soak in the lime water until the hulls dissolve and/or loosen from the corn kernels, at least 1-2 hours and perhaps overnight.  Be careful with the hot lime water as it is a bit caustic.  However, it is not dangerous to the touch.


Drain the soaked corn through a plastic or non-reactive colander.  Rinse well.  Place back in pot and cover with cool water.  Stir well and drain.  Repeat at least 2 more times until all the lime has been washed away.  

Put the drained kernels back in the pot, cover again with cool water, and rub the kernels vigorously between your hands to remove any adhering hulls.  Skim the freed hulls from the water (they float).  Repeat until almost all of the hulls have been removed.  Rinse kernels in fresh water and drain.


At this stage you have nixtamal (right hand).  You can use it in a number of ways:

First, if you'd like to use the nixtamal immediately to make a dish calling for posole/hominy, simply return the kernels to a pot, cover with water, bring to a boil, and simmer until tender.

Second, if you'd like to make masa dough for tamales or tortillas, at this juncture you'll need to finely grind the kernels.  A food grinder using the smallest-holed plate will work fine.  Pass the ground nixtamal through the grinder as many times as it takes to make a relatively smooth paste. 

Lastly, if you'd like to dry the nitxamal to make posole/hominy, all you need to do is place the nixtamal into a food dehydrator or in the sun on covered screens.  Then simply allow the kernels to dry until they are no longer cool to the touch (the evaporating water will make the kernels temperature be cooler than body temperature).  In Albuquerque it takes 2-3 days for the kernels to fully dry in the sun.  Once dry, place in an air-tight container and store in a cool, dark place.



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Green Chili and Cheese Posole


We generally work from some type of recipe when we do our cooking for this blog so to help ensure that readers will be able to replicate our results in their kitchen.  But sometimes a dish comes along that is so simple it hardly needs to be written down.  Such is the case here. All we’re doing here is putting fully cooked whole kernel posole (nixtamal) into a cheese sauce with roasted green chilies to make a New Mexican version of Macaroni and Cheese. But, Linda was busy with other things while making this, so she didn’t record exact quantities.  Rather, here's her memory of how she made it:

How much posole did we soak up to make the 2.5 quart casserole? It soaked to about 4-6 cups but I don't remember how much we started with. [probably 2-3 cups dry posole – Jeff]

Cheese – two big heaping handfuls with a bit extra to make it nice and cheesy – so about 2 to 3 cups  [we used shredded cheddar & jack – Jeff]

Green Chili – probably about half a cup, chopped [remember to use roasted green chilies which have had the skins removed – Jeff]

Milk/Cream – probably a total of about 2 cups

Butter – about half a cup into the sauce and a bit more smeared onto the casserole

Corn Starch – about 2 tablespoons if you are not using cream as you’ll need something to thicken the sauce.

Cornmeal – about ¼ cup used to dust the bottom of the buttered casserole.  .

Toss the corn starch with the prepared posole until it is evenly distributed (make sure your posole is fairly well drained and somewhat dried off or this will be a mess and won't help you) and set aside. Make a white sauce with butter and milk/cream and some salt, pepper and Mexican Oregano – I like lots of pepper in my sauce. While the sauce is finding itself, put a layer of about two inches of posole on the bottom of the buttered and dusted casserole. Add a heaping handful of cheese, plus some, and then a sprinkling of green chilies, salt and freshly ground pepper (not too much salt because the cheese and cream sauce will also have salt and corn doesn't soak it up like potatoes do). Repeat the layering process leaving about an inch-worth of posole for the top.  Pour the sauce over all and sprinkle the top with cheese. Cover and bake in a 350° F oven for about 45 minutes then uncover and bake until there is a nice brown crust on top.  Allow it to settle into itself for a bit before serving; it will initially look very loose and watery but it will set.



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Southwestern Cowpea Salad


There are a few foods that Jeff absolutely hates, and top on that list is anthing that uses sweet corn kernels.  Yet, this is exactly what is used to make almost any "southwestern" style salad in the modern American cuisine.  As far as Jeff is concerned the way that God intended corn to be used is as cooked posole, which has an excellent texture and wonderful nutty flavor as opposed to the sweet-only insipid flavor of sweet corn.  To illustrate just how much better posole serves in these recipes, we present here a southwestern cowpea salad that now bears little resemblance to its initial presentation in Mark Miller’s 1994 The Great Salsa Book(ISBN 978-0785830764).  Note that the salad keeps mellowing and melding it flavors for many days in the refrigerator.  Be sure to give it at least 24 hours before serving. 

1 cup dry cowpeas
1 cup nixtamal or dry posole (we used home-made blue corn posole)
1 large poblano (ancho) chile
1 cup white wine vinegar
2 cups water
2 green serrano chiles, halved
1 teaspoon salt
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon dry Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon dry thyme
2 bay leaves
½ cup diced celery
½ cup diced carrots
1 small sweet red bell pepper, diced
1 small sweet yellow bell pepper, diced
1 small sweet orange bell pepper, diced
1 small red onion, peeled, cut in half and cut into ¼ inch wide slices
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
12 cherry tomatoes, quartered
½ cup chopped cilantro
½ cup chopped green onion

Cook the cowpeas until tender.  Remove from heat and drain.  If you are using more than one cowpea variety, cook each type separately as they will cook at different rates.

Cook nixtamal/posole until tender.  Remove from heat and drain.

Roast fresh poblano over a fire or hot burner, turning until all sides are blistered and blackened.  Remove from heat, place in a plastic bag, and let steam for 5 minutes.  Remove from bag and rinse under cold water to remove the blackened skin.  Open and remove the seeds.  Cut into ½ x 2” strips. 

Bring vinegar, water, salt, Serrano chili, oregano, thyme, cinnamon, black pepper and bay to a boil.  Simmer for 15 minutes.  Strain out solids.

Bring the liquid back to a simmer and add in the diced carrots and celery.  Poach for 5 minutes.  Add in the diced red, yellow, and orange bell peppers and red onion slices.  Poach for another 5 minutes.  Strain out the vegetables and let cool.  Return the poaching liquid to the pan and continue boil until reduced to ½ cup.  Remove from heat and cool. 

Whisk together the olive oil and reduced poaching liquid, and toss with the cooked cowpeas, posole, poblano strips, poached vegetables, chopped cilantro and green onion.  Let stand for a least overnight to allow the flavors to meld.  Serve at room temperature.


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One of the best ways to use your freshly made nixtamal is to grind it into a dough from which you’ll make tamales.  Traditionally, tamales are made using lard as the shortening.  Here we’re using some type of vegetable oil to allow the tamale dough to be vegan/vegetarian.  We were successful using either liquid oil or palm (dendê) oil which – like lard – is solid at room temperature.  The palm oil also had the added advantage of giving the tamale dough a rich orange-yellow color and subtle savory flavor. 

We present two fillings:  one a vegan spicy mushroom filling adapted from Rick Bayless' 1996 Mexican Kitchen, and the other a simple cheese and green chili filling of our own creation - evocative of New Mexico. 

While the recipe looks involved, once you get the hang of folding the tamales and packing them into a steamer, you’ll find that you can go from raw ingredients to a packed steamer in less than an hour.  And tamale-making is a great thing to do with friends and family! About 90 minutes of steaming later you’ll have the best tamales you’ve ever eaten.

Tamale Dough

20-24 dry horn husks (hojas)
1 pound coarsely ground masa dough (see nixtamal recipe)
½ cup canola or corn oil or 2/3 cup palm (dendê) oil
1 teaspoon baking powder
2/3 vegetable broth
1 teaspoon salt

Place the dry hojas in a small pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil.  Remove from heat and weight with a plate smaller in diameter than the pot to keep the husks submerged.  Let stand for an hour.

In a mixer beat the masa and baking powder with oil until the batter becomes light in texture (about 1 minute).  While continuing to beat the batter, slowly pour in the broth.  If not the consistency of a soft cake batter add in some additional broth.  Add in 1 teaspoon salt.  Continue mixing for another 2 minutes.  Let mixture firm up in the refrigerator while you make the filling. 

Spicy Mushroom Filling

½ pound fresh poblano (ancho) chilies
1 tablespoon canola or corn oil
1 medium white onion, cut in half and thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, minced
½ teaspoon dry Mexican oregano leaves, crumbled
½ teaspoon dry thyme leaf
1 pound chopped tomatoes (if fresh, please blanch and skin)
12 oz sliced Crimini or white button mushrooms
1 teaspoon salt

First roast the poblano chilies over a hot burner.  Rotate the chilies until the skin is blistered and blacked all over.  Place the roasted chilies in a plastic bag to steam for 5 minutes.  Remove from bag and rinse under cold water to remove the charred skins.  Open the chilies and remove the seeds.  Cut into ¼ x 2” strips. 

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high.  When the oil is hot add in the onion and sauté, stirring frequently until translucent – about 5 minutes.  Add in the minced garlic, Mexican oregano and thyme and fry for another minute.  Now add in the prepared poblano, tomatoes, and mushrooms.  Continue sautéing for another 10 minutes until the mixture has reduced and thickened so that it holds it shape in a spoon.  Season with salt.  Remove from heat and allow to cool. 

Green Chile and Cheese Filling

Slice a 1 pound of Muenster or Jack cheese into ¼” slices.  Coarsely chop 1 cup of roasted green chilies.   

Tamale Assembly and Cooking

Choose the nicest 18 hojas.  If you are using a canning kettle to steam the tamales, make sure that there is at least a 1” deep rack in the bottom, and then use ½ of the remaining hojas to line the bottom. 

Take a hoja, lay it in front of you, and pat if dry.  Spread ¼-1/3 cup of the tamale batter to an equal depth across the hoja, leaving at least a 2” clear border on all sides.  Spoon roughly 2 tablespoons of filling down the center of the batter. Fold the sides together to enclose the filling in masa dough.  To close the packet, fold the unfilled pointed bottom piece of husk up over the tamale, and pack tightly into the seamer, folded bottom end down and open masa-filled end up.  You can also consider tearing off 1/8 wide hoja strips and use these as string to tie together the folded uncooked tamale.  Stack into the steamer, open side facing up.

Tamales2 Tamales3


Once you have used all the tamale dough and filling, make sure that the raw tamales are tightly packed into the steamer as if not they will open and spill out all their contents during steaming. Consider using water-filled pint canning jars to fill up any extra space.  Cover the top of the tamales with the remaining unused soaked hojas.

Fill with enough water to come at least ½ way up the raw tamales.  Place the steamer over high heat and bring to a boil.  Reduce to medium.  Cover and cook for at least 90 minutes.  When the tamales are done the hoja is easily peeled from the masa without tearing the tamale.  Remove from steamer and serve while still warm.