HOME & HEART: Hot Tamale


My husband Bob-O and I are ever in search of the sweetest non-hybrid eating corn. Last year, I grew three different varieties of corn. Two were open-pollinated sweet corn. This season, we are growing the True Gold variety from Peace Seeds. But it is a third corn variety that continues to give us pleasure long after the summer sun has parted.

Painted Mountain

I got my Painted Mountain (PM) corn seed from our friend Ernie. He had been growing this multicolored open-pollinated corn and saving seed for years. This corn variety was developed in Montana from heirloom varieties grown by northern Native Americans. PM can grow in colder elevations with shorter growing seasons. It is also drought-tolerant, which works for our climate.

This corn can be eaten fresh, if picked when the ears are small and the kernels are still white. Ernie ground the dried kernels into flour. I have also favored drying the mature cobs and using the corn for flour, cornmeal, and polenta. The only difference between the three is how fine you grind.

I tried to make tortillas. I used the dried ground corn, and mixed it with a little water and salt to make a dough. I purchased a classic cast-iron tortilla press at a local bodega. After making the egg-sized balls of dough, I pressed each one flat and gently laid each tortilla on a hot griddle. After flipping the tortillas after a minute or two, we spread them with butter and ate them still hot. They tasted great! However, when we tried to fold a tortilla around any filling, they just cracked apart. We were limited to making tostadas and quesadillas—they were good, but not what I had intended.

Flat Tortilla

I was visiting my sister near Concow, California, when I picked up a magazine showcasing local attractions. To my delight, I found an article by a woman, Jennifer Greene, whose family runs Windbourne Farm, a diverse organic, biodynamic family farm. They sell their produce at the local farmers market and various buying clubs. One of the drying corns they grow is Painted Mountain (PM).

Jennifer did a lot of research, trials, and techniques on processing the dried PM corn. She now makes homemade tortillas to sell to an eager clientele. With some added Internet research, along with her tips and tricks, I was ready to try again.

Lime Time

I began the days-long process to make the nixtamal, the corn dough used for tortillas and tamales. On the first evening, I mixed 1/4 cup of pickling lime with 10 cups of simmering water in a stainless steel, 2-gallon stockpot. I turned off the heat, stirred the solution well, covered the pot with a lid, and left it overnight to settle the lime solids to the bottom. Pickling lime is caustic and great care must be taken when handling. Rinse any lime solution that touches your skin with cold water. The lime water has to be in a stainless steel or enameled pot. Use a wooden or other nonreactive spoon to stir.

In the morning, I used a paper coffee filter and a nonreactive mesh strainer to transfer and filter the lime water into a 1-gallon stainless steel pot. I added two cups of my dried Painted Mountain corn kernels. Covering the pot, I let the corn soak until the next morning.

The next step is tricky. You have to cook the kernels in the lime water for two or more hours, until they are completely saturated. The cooking temperature needs to stay at 190°F, or as close as you can get, the whole time.

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