Masa Class

Being located in Central Texas, we couldn’t get away without a class on masa, a classic Mexican blend of cornmeal, water, and usually some kind of fat. Masa has a number of applications: tortillas, sopes, and tamales are popular ones. I just love the flavor of corn and it’s a great grain to use in the summertime. It’s sweet, light, and fresh tasting. No wonder it has been popular in Latin America for thousands of years (1).

Below: Spicy chilaquiles – a traditional Mexican dish of tortillas, tomato-based sauce, and spices.

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Below: One of my favorites, a posole soup (at bottom). Posole is made from a large whole variety of corn and is usually cooked with a meat-based broth. We, of course, used onion, cumin, oregano, cilantro, lime and others to create a deliciously savory soup to go along with the starchy, yummy posole.

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Below: Some lovely grilled vegetables – zucchini, yellow squash, and a variety of peppers (including the very trendy shishito peppers – the long green whole peppers).

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Below: Chef Alex Lopez, always in command.

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Below: We made tamales with a sauteed mushroom filling.

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Below: Delicious posole soup with a melon-mint agua fresca.

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(1) http://www.campsilos.org/mod3/students/c_history.shtml

Cooking Par-Tay: Tamales and Fruit Compote

For our weekly extracurricular cooking gathering last week, I decided to use za’atar to create tamales. Za’atar is an herb mixture from the middle East that I thought would work well in a tamale format. I learned about Za’atar in a class last week and liked it instantly. It’s herby and robust and just begs to be rubbed on bread or just about anything (food, that is :P). I drove down to a Middle Eastern grocer down the street from school after class and bought a small bag.

For the tamales, I used mushrooms for flavor and texture, and added onions for more depth. Mushrooms cook down to a chewy texture and have a earthy flavor that I knew would work well with the za’atar. Google helped me create a vegan masa, which is the soft corn-based outside of a tamale. Traditionally, lard is used to help the masa hold together but I used olive oil to make it more heart, body, and Earth healthy.

Not to get too sappy here but it’s fair to speculate that I would never have taken this project on had I not started culinary school, so that is really cool to think about and makes me feel good about where I’m at. It’s also cool to be able to discuss our cooking outside of class with our teachers, and they provide useful information to help us get better. All of the Natural Epicurean staff have been really helpful to discuss our home cooking experiments. Plus I’ve come into contact with fellow students who have brought food knowledge into my life, so that’s been great as well. Going to cooking school has accelerated my food knowledge and experience for sure.

Below: Boiling 2 cups of water with some olive oil and salt before adding about 1 cup of masa – use more or less masa until the dough gets thick like a typical dough.

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Below: Spread some masa on a water-soaked corn husk, then put some of your filling in the center.

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Below: Bring the edges together, roll, then fold the bottom end up.

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Below: Stack the tamales into a steamer basket in a deep pot. Put about 1-2″ of water in the bottom.

Below: A cooked tamale, garnished with a cashew lime cilantro sauce and chili powder (lime zest + cilantro + soaked cashews). A VitaMix would have been very useful in creating the sauce to help smooth it out. Maybe I’ll get one soon… :)  I found that the masa was sturdier after the tamales sat in the fridge overnight.

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Below: Sweet corn bread with fruit-coconut milk compote. The compote was spicy with cinnamon and cloves and sweet from fruit and a touch of honey. Mmm!

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Masa Class

Slow Food Austin hosted a class on masa at The Natural Epicurean recently. I showed up to learn about masa and to whet my appetite by spending time in the kitchen where I’ll soon be spending my days.

Hector Gonzalez, a cook who also teaches private classes, showed us how dried corn is boiled with chemical lime to remove the insoluble husk around each kernel of corn. This process is called nixtamalization. Wikipedia cites multiple benefits to this process: the corn “is more easily ground; its nutritional value is increased; flavor and aroma are improved; and mycotoxins are reduced.”

Below: Hector Gonzalez in the teaching kitchen of The Natural Epicurean.

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