April 29, 2009

The history of corn

Corn or maize boasts a rich history in our culture thanks to the Mesoamericans, who domesticated the plant in central Mexico more than 7,000 years ago. Today’s corn looked very different from the early plant, teosinte, a wild grass with tiny single rowed cobs. Over thousands of years, the crop evolved and varieties were selected for desired traits. It became a stable in the diets of most cultures in North and South America.

It is unknown what led to its widespread domestication, because the variety available at the time had kernels that were too small and hard to be eaten off the cob. Early corn eaters developed a process known as nixtamalization, which transforms the thick, hull-encased kernels to dense, chewy kernels that can be used for a variety of food preparations. The kernels are cooked in alkaline water (made with lime or wood ash) until the hulls can be rubbed off, allowing the corn to expand when cooked (the product is known as hominy). The Native Americans traditionally used a wooden mortar and pestle to grind the soft kernels into a coarse meal, which could then be used to make soups, puddings and breads. Colonists in America quickly learned from the Native Americans about corn agriculture and corn became an important food source.

In Mexico, hominy kernels add a chewy texture to many traditional Mexican soups and stews. It can also be easily formed into a dough to make fresh masa. When fresh masa is dried and ground into a very fine flour it is known as masa harina. Masa is used to make the delicious corn tortillas and tamales of Mexico, as well as to thicken one of my all-time favorite sauces, mole!

The type of corn used to make hominy is known as dent corn or field corn. In the United States, this corn is grown in abundance for animal feed. (FYI: this defies many laws of nature, altering the diets of animals that were not designed to feed exclusively on corn. The results are nutritionally inferior animal products and less healthy/happy animals). Popcorn is another type of corn that is grown for you guessed it...popcorn. Sweet corn is the popular vegetable that we all enjoy during the late summer and fall months.

An important note about nixtamalization: what is most extraordinary about the process is that it affects the protein structure of the corn so that the corn’s bound niacin is released into a free form that can be readily absorbed. This essential amino acid is important to prevent pellagra. Had the corn been processed by methods other than nixtamalization, niacin deficiency would have weakened many populations. This affirms my belief that traditional ways of eating are almost always best. Through a long process of trial and error, regional diets and food traditions evolved to sustain populations optimally. In the words of one of my favorite authors, Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma):

“I’m inclined to think any traditional diet will do; if it wasn’t a healthy regimen, the diet and the people who followed it wouldn’t still be around”

Someday, I would like to try and make my own hominy by soaking the kernels in lime water and washing off the hulls, but canned or dried hominy is convenient and a fine substitute. Here is a simple and healthy recipe I came up with using the traditional flavors of Mexican posole.

Posole Verde

Green Hominy Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, coarsely chopped
½ large bunch coarsely chopped Swiss chard (greens and stems)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon ancho chile powder
3 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 (29-ounce) can hominy, drained and rinsed
½ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
Salt and freshly ground pepper

For garnish:
Sliced avocado
Shredded green cabbage
Chopped cilantro
Chopped white onion
Sliced radishes
Lime wedges

Corn tortillas

Heat oil in heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and Swiss chard; sauté until onion is translucent and chard is wilted, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and chile powder; stir 1 minute.

Stir in broth and hominy; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer 25 minutes. Stir in oregano and salt and pepper to taste. Ladle into large soup bowls. Serve with plenty of garnish and warm tortillas.

April 14, 2009

The True Graham Cracker

Who doesn’t love a graham cracker, which pairs so wonderfully with milk, peanut butter, chocolate, and roasted marshmallows? I came across some graham flour from Bob’s Red Mill and had the idea of recreating a wholesome graham cracker recipe, with the same distinct graham cracker flavor that we all know and love, but without the additives that the modern day cracker contains.

In order to come up with my recipe, I went on a mission to find out a comprehensive history of the graham cracker—When was it invented? Why is it called graham cracker? How has the recipe evolved over time? I think you will find my findings very interesting.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the definition of a graham cracker is: A slightly sweet, usually rectangular cracker made with whole-wheat flour.
Well, at least the food manufacturing companies got the shape of the cracker right.

The graham cracker was created in 1829 by a Presbyterian minister, Sylvester Graham, as part of his dietary reform regimen. The movement was largely in response to the popularity of chemical additives and refined white flour in bakeries during the Industrial Revolution.

The original graham cracker was made with a special type of unsifted whole wheat flour, known as graham flour. The components of the wheat kernel are ground separately—the endosperm is ground finely (which is essentially white flour), and the bran and germ are ground coarsely. Once combined, a course-textured flour is formed that is nutritious and bakes well. A substitute for graham flour would be 1 cup white flour, about 5 tablespoons wheat bran and 1½ teaspoons wheat germ.

Due to the popularity of graham crackers, in 1925 a company known as the National Biscuit Company (now Nabisco) sweetened the cracker with honey and developed methods for its mass production. The Nabisco graham cracker that we find in the grocery store snack isle today contains refined bleached flour, high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils and “artificial flavor” (whatever that means).

My sister Renee, who studied abroad in London, would be happy to know that the American graham cracker equivalent in England is the Digestive, made by a company called McVitie’s. Like graham crackers, digestives are made with coarse wheat flour and boast a long history, remaining a popular snack today. You can find the crackers (or biscuits) in stores that have imported ethnic foods. Beware of the dark chocolate variety—they’re delicious and addictive.

After sorting through the ingredients of homemade graham cracker recipes and commercial varieties, I had come up with a recipe for a true graham cracker that I thought would rival the store-bought kind. I was pleased with the result and encourage you to make them yourself if you ever come across graham flour, because like I mentioned before...who doesn't like a graham cracker?

Homemade Graham Crackers

1 ¾ cup graham flour
½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch chunks
1/3 cup honey
2 tablespoons molasses
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large organic egg

For the topping
3 tablespoons fine natural sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon

1. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Add the butter and cut it into the flour mixture with a pastry cutter until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

2. In a small bowl, whisk together the honey, molasses, milk, vanilla and egg. Add to the flour mixture and mix with a wooden spoon until the dough barely comes together. It will be soft and sticky.

3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and pat into a rectangle about 1 inch thick. Wrap in plastic and chill until firm, about 2 hours.

4. To make the topping, in a small bowl combine the sugar and cinnamon and set aside.

5. Sift an even layer of flour onto the work surface and roll the dough into a long rectangle about 1/8 inch thick. The dough will be sticky, so flour as necessary. Trim the edges and cut into individual rectangles (mine were about 3 x 4 inches). Gather the scraps together and use to make additional crackers (you may have to refrigerate for 15 minutes if the dough becomes too soft). Place the crackers on one or two parchment-lined baking sheets and sprinkle with the topping. Chill until firm, about 30 minutes.

6. Adjust the oven rack to the upper and lower positions and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

7. Using a toothpick or large fork, prick the dough to form two dotted rows.

8. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until browned and slightly firm to the tough, rotating the sheets halfway through to ensure even baking.

April 8, 2009

Simple homemade hummus

Today, hummus is as ubiquitous as any other classic American dip, and there’s hardly a question why. The versatile and nutritious spread is a fantastic accompaniment to not just flat breads, but raw vegetables, wraps and sandwiches, and grain salads such as tabbouleh. The main components of traditional hummus are mashed garbanzo beans and tahini, which give it a wonderful nutty and buttery flavor. Other ingredients usually include olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and spices, but variations exist throughout the Middle East (for instance, Egyptians add cumin and Moroccans add harissa).

Garbanzo beans, or chickpeas, originate from the Middle East and date back about 7,000 years. The word hummus is actually the Arabic word for chickpea and hummus bi tahini is the term for what we have come to know as the classic dip. The bean is a good source protein and has long been integrated in the traditional diets of the Middle East, the Mediterranean and India. The legume’s pasty and starchy texture make it a versatile ingredient and can be found in many ethnic salads, stews and curries, falafels and other dips.

Tahini is a paste made of sesame seeds: tiny, flat oval seeds that come in a variety of colors, including white, black, red and yellow. Sesame seeds were first cultivated in India nearly 4000 years ago, and later spread to the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The tiny seeds are loaded with vitamins and minerals and are valued for their high oil content, which is resistant to becoming rancid. Throughout the world, the seeds are added to breads, salads, and sweet confections such as halvah. The seeds were introduced to colonial America by African slaves in the 17th century. Nearly one-third of imported sesame crop in the U.S. is used for McDonald's hamburger buns. I really think that we need to be more innovative with our use of sesame seeds. My grandfather would attest to that--he puts sesame seeds on everything from pancakes to ice cream.

Once you realize how easy it is to make hummus, you may never buy it again. It is a great condiment to have on hand and it is fun to experiment with different spice/herb mixtures. I will leave you with a basic hummus recipe that has a spicy, smoky kick.

Homemade hummus

I have found that the proportions of garbanzos, tahini, water and olive oil yield a perfectly creamy and smooth hummus. You may want to adjust the quantity of water depending on the desired consistency. Garlic, paprika and cayenne pepper give it a nice spicy kick, but see below for other suggestions.

My favorite ways to eat hummus: as a dip with raw broccoli and carrots, spread on crusty bread with cucumber slices, topped on greens that are dressed with lemon and olive oil, and of course the classic…with warm, fresh pita bread.

1 (14.5 ounce) can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
2-3 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons tahini
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon paprika, plus more for garnish
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt

For garnish (optional)
Drizzle of olive oil
Pinch of paprika
Chopped parsley
Whole garbanzo beans


1. In a food processor, combine garbanzo beans, garlic, tahini, lemon juice, water, and olive oil. Process until smooth. Stir in spices to taste.

2. Spoon into serving dish and add garnish.

Other additions you might try: cumin, coriander, red pepper flakes, roasted red peppers, harissa (Moroccan hot red pepper paste), roasted garlic, cilantro