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Celt's Garden - Corn Tortillas and Skagit River Produce

Winter squash stores well at cool room temperatures. If you didn't grow any winter squash, feel free to buy some from your local farmer. To prepare your squash for storage, wash off the soil, scrubbing gently with a soft brush, then go over the clean squash again with a wash rag soaked in cool water with a shot of bleach added. Allow to air dry. Then store your squash in cardboard boxes in a single layer, not touching. I keep mine in the basement, but any coolish place where it doesn't freeze will do. Some varieties keep better than others. The delicious little Delicatas: eat those first. Acorn squash is a good keeper. Our Bellingham heirloom, Navajo Grey, keeps into spring in a good year.

A freshly made tortilla is wonderful. Fresh corn tortillas are hard to buy legally in this town. The eatery at La Gloria Market (4140 Meridian, behind SuperGas) will make a dozen for you. Ask nicely at your favorite Mexican place. If it's a slow day you may luck out.

Although a fresh tortilla is by far better than that stuff in the packages, unfortunately the commercial places use masa harina, dried pre-made tortilla dough, available in big bags from Cash and Carry. The masa market is dominated by Mesteca in El Paso, and they cheerfully buy GMO dent corn on the commodity market. Usually, any place with a substantial Mexican American population has a hole in the wall fresh masa factory, but I haven't been able to find one, even in Lynden. Besides, they often start with whole GMO corn kernels.

Or you could make your own. Fresh homemade tortillas will make you a lot of fans. Bob's Red Mill makes an excellent masa harina. Something about the masa making process renders the product ineligible for organic certification, but Bob's says they start with non-GMO corn.

Tortillas are usually made from white or yellow dent corn, with the white preferred by the Mexican market. Hence most masa harina available in the U.S. is made from white dent. Corn has two kinds of starch, soft and hard. Dent corn has a cap of soft starch. It collapses as the corn ripens, forming the characteristic dent in the kernel.

Flour corn has a high percentage of soft starch. Hopi Blue Flour is used to make blue tortillas and tortilla chips. If you look closely, blue tortillas are denser and more granular than the soft, fine white ones. Flour corn is usually used for cornbread, parch corn or hominy. Corn breeder Dave Christiansen developed Painted Mountain flour corn to grow at high elevations in Montana. It's spectacular, colorful stuff. Krista Rome grew a crop of Painted Mountain in 2009 and reports that the masa doesn't hold together well enough for tortillas.

Flint corn is just the opposite of flour corn, high in hard starch. Flint corn can be used for tortillas, but due to its hardness is usually eaten as hominy or polenta, that would be corn grits to most of us. Floriani Red Italian heirloom flint corn has become popular for upscale grits. Grits are ground up corn, fine, medium or coarse. Hominy is made by boiling the whole kernels in hardwood ash, pickling lime or other alkali, and washing off the skins. Hominy lends itself well to stews. Due to its hardness, whole flint corn stores well and is harder to grind than dent. Various First Nations people grew some flint corn as a hedge against crop failure in future years. Flint corns have low cross rate of 10% with dent corn. I grew Abenaki Calais Flint alongside of Nothstine Dent last summer and sure enough, they didn't appear to cross.

Popcorn is an envelope of hard starch surrounding a soft starch interior. When heated, the soft starch explodes. Popcorn is dominant over other types of corn. If you grow Jade Baby or Strawberry popcorn, it will dominate your sweet corn. Or your neighbor's, eh? If a jar of stored of popcorn loses its popping quality, it's probably just dried out. Put a tablespoon of water in the jar, seal it back up and let it sit for a few days to absorb the water.

Popcorn keeps years; it's hard stuff. I about broke my Kitchen Aid mixer by trying to grind popcorn with the grain mill attachment. Then I figured it out: run the popcorn through on a coarse setting and then a second time on fine. It made excellent cornbread.

Waxy corn is the other major corn type. Waxy corns are 100% soft starch. As food, waxy corn is used for porridge, popular in Asian countries. Waxy corn is used to make corn starch, corn oil, ethanol, plastics, and widely used in industrial processes. The latest GMO market flop is a waxy corn. Farmers aren't buying it, saying that the yields aren't high enough to justify the higher price.

Farmers across the country are having trouble finding non-GMO seed corn. Even finding non-hybrid seed corn is a challenge. The Aamot family has grown Nothstine Dent, an old open-pollinated variety, on their farm for years. I didn't get enough Nothstine Dent (seed courtesy of Matt Aamot) out of my test patch for a tortilla test (patch ravaged courtesy deer), but it is burly stuff, shooting up past the Hopi Blue Flour and setting fat ears.

As you are blasting along on I-5 through Skagit County, consider turning off at exit 221 to check out the new Skagit River Produce barn. Just east of the interstate, a new barn with what looks like 3KW of solar panels. Owners Tory Fidler and Tracy O'hare are stocking gleaming piles of conventional produce from the Skagit Valley and smaller amounts from their own farm (organic methods, not certified) and certified organic produce. They also have an excellent selection of meat, dairy, honey, eggs, baked goods and value added products like jams, pickles, locally roasted coffee, Skagit wines, and regional beers. One cold case is aimed at the road side convenience store market: ice cream, sodas, beer, pizza and so forth, except with real food. Open into December and then, "We'll see how it goes".

Corn Tortillas from Scratch

1 pound whole dried corn kernels
1 tablespoon baking soda or pickling lime (calcium hydroxide, food grade lime)
2 quarts water

Heat water and alkali until it just starts to boil. Add corn and turn down heat so that it just simmers for an hour. Then let it sit overnight. The next day, drain and wash thoroughly under running water. The challenge is grinding it into masa. I use the grinder attachment for my KitchenAid mixer, which makes a lumpier than ideal dough. You could try a food processor. The proper tool for the job is a corn grinder (Corona, Estrella or Victoria), available for a modest sum from Mexican grocery stores.

Add enough water to the masa so that it sticks together and you can form it into tortillas using a tortilla press (inexpensive cast iron or larger wood dohicky, the plastic ones break) or your hands. The talented can use a rolling pin. Cook tortillas on an ungreased griddle, turning once. I found that a cast iron pancake griddle works well, available from Yaeger's on Meridian.

The same process also makes dough for tamales. Traditionally, tamales are made from a coarser dough than tortillas, but it's case of use what you can come up with.

Hominy

If you can get your hands on whole heritage corn, such as red flint or an heirloom dent, it makes excellent hominy. Basically the same as masa, but allow the corn to boil vigorously in the alkali, and scrub off the skins when you rinse the kernels. To make the hominy "flower", pinch off the end of the kernels and they will open up in the stew.

Chicken Posole

Saute sliced onions and garlic with bite sized chicken chunks. Add chicken stock and hominy. Season with fresh or dried red chiles and a liberal quantity of oregano. Let cook or a while, and add some green stuff out of your garden: sliced cabbages, winter radishes, maybe a few mustard leaves. When the green stuff is soft, stir in a shot of lime juice and serve with tortillas.

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Comment by Celt M. Schira on November 1, 2010 at 9:00am
Angela, that's very nice of you to say, thank you. Here's a tortilla tip: press tortillas between a couple of sheets of waxed paper in the tortilla press or, if desperate, with a wine bottle as a field expedient rolling pin. It helps overcome the stickiness of the masa. Then peel off the top sheet, place the tortilla side down on the hot comal (cast iron griddle) and peel off the second sheet. Especially with lumpy home made masa, it may take a little practice. I used red dent from Montana Mills with a few tablespoons of Bob's Red Mill masa to make it easier to handle, and the comal on medium heat.
Comment by Angela MacLeod on October 31, 2010 at 10:30pm
WOW Awesome post! Thanks again. I love reading your posts about gardening and cooking, so informative and nicely written.

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