Cooking with Ash
I do not know where the origination of cooking with ash stems from. When I initially researched it, I found that adding ash in your cooking water with corn adds to the nutritional value of the product. It was prominently used by Indians throughout North, Central and northern South America. The logic behind their reasoning was that it made it easier for the skins to seperate from the hulls in corn, and made a stronger flavored product. Unquestionably, the Indians had no idea about the nutritional value of foods, but studies today reason that the use of the ash undoubtedly, made the Indians healthier people.
Ash water infuses the kernels of corn with calcium and trace minerals, makes niacin more available, protein more digestible and alters the amino acid balance of the protein to increase its quality and nutritional power. The Indians didn't need science; they had what I refer to as "nutritional wisdom"
Dr. Doris Calloway did a report on the practice in the Hopi and Papago tribes in Arizona in the mid-70's. Dr. Calloway found that the Indian varieties of corn make a flour that was richer in calcium and protein than todays commercial products. Her tests through the UCLA's nutritional department showed remarkable increases in vital food elements when cooked with ash.
Calcium and phosphorus are essential to a healthy diet. Our body needs a good amount of calcium each day but the intake of most staples, like meat, grains and beans are quite low in this essential mineral but can be quite high in phosphorus. Too much phosphorus can lead into being not such a good thing tho', because the phosphorus can tie up the calcium and prevent it from being utilized.
Unfortunately, the "American Diet" consumes twice as much phosphorus as calcium. These two essential minerals should be somewhat equally proportioned.. If you are eating a high phosphorus meal I would recommend the eating of greens, dairy products or some other foods that are rich in calcium, if you do not, the blocking of the calcium will keep going on, leaving the person with a calcium deficiency...what did the Indians know that we don't? Again, who needed the science and who possessed the 'nutritional wisdom'?
Corn is very high in the phosphorus versus calcium ratio and the adding of the ash process makes it more reasonable as far as the calcium deficiency is concerned.
Dr. Calloway's research found that the Indian tribes of Arizona burned saltbush, juniper tip, dried bean plants and even corncobs. Other studies have found that the different tribes throughout the Americas used a variety of different ashes for the processing of their corn. One tribe in northern South America was even reported as using snail shells for their ash. I thought that was pretty interesting.
No matter what kind of ash was used the process of making the corn into hominy was basically all the same. Ash into hot water, water strained. Whole dried corn was placed in this alkaline solution and boiled up to one hour. Then the corn was washed away of the alkaline and the hulls. While moist the hominy was mashed and made into flour used to make tortillas or other breads.
Nutritionalist Anita Hirsh came up with the idea to experiment with adding ash water into corn flour recipes to see if it altered the nutritional value of her breads. It most absolutely did. In one blue corn bread recipe that Ms. Hirsh experimented with the nutritional value of the calcium raised substantially in one 100 gram serving, rising from 3.5 mg to 154 mg, in another one of her experiments the calcium went from 2.5 mg to 254 mg... Wow!! In her report Ms. Hirsh also stated that when she made her blue corn bread with and without the ash, that the blue corn color faded with the use of plain water, but the bread made with the ash kept the bread a brilliant blue...hmmmmm....points to ponder....
As stated earlier about my trip to Mexico, this came from a friend of mine, Evelina Consuelo, a native to La Paz, Baja California. I have done a fair amount of experimenting with this recipe attempting to understand the science and theories behind the method. But all of what I learned about the tradition and method of this recipe I owe to Mrs. Consuelo.
The traditional way to make tortillas is to make the masa directly from dried corn. Masa is a pasty pastry dough made by mashing hominy (dehulled, boiled corn) while it is still fresh and moist from the alkaline cooking solution. Traditionally, the Indians/Spaniards used wood ashes for the alkaline to remove the seed coat from the dried corn and at the same time increased the nutritional value of the 'masa'.
Using an alkaline solution is as easy as cooking a pot of beans...when the skins burst, the corn is done. You rub off the hulls then rinse them and the alkaline water away.
As with everything else, there is a little trick in there somewhere...I have not found it (not to satisfy my thirst of knowledge anyway...) In making hominy, I have gathered that it is all in your alkaline level. I have tried to boil the mixture longer, to no avail. I have added ground limestone, only to come up with the same effect. I increased the amount of wood ashes and this was my only breakthrough. When I increased the alkaline, the removal of the hulls became easier. In my experimentation, I have discovered that leaving the skins on the hulls did not matter much unless I was going to leave the hulls on and try to make a taco shell or some other fried corn tortilla that needed shape. I saw very little difference in the quality of the tortilla, aside of the ones with the skins were a little bit chewier.
2 T plus of wood ash
1 quart of water
2 cupsof dried white corn
Soak corn overnight. The next day heat one quart of water. Add the wood ash,
stir it in then strain out the undissolved wood particles.
Add corn in a stainless steel pot with the alkaline solution. Cook until the hulls break and loosen. 30-60 minutes. Add more water if necessary, keep the corn covered.
Remove from the heat and drain off the alkaline water. Rinse immediately under cold water several times until the water runs clear and the kernels lose their slippery feel.
Rinse the gookiness (if that's a word) off your hands as well, you are going to handle the corn with your hands....
Rub the hulls off with your hands. Rinse again.
Put the hominy through a meat grinder with a fine blade. Once is enough, but to make a fine masa, run through twice.
Knead the masa and make into 1 1/2 inch balls and roll out with a rolling pin or flatten in a tortilla press.*
This recipe will make from 12-16 tortillas. Brown the tortillas in a cast iron skillet with little or no oil.
• Chef Mike note: This can be made without the ash, but the alkaline water makes the hulls break easily and enhances the flavor of the corn and makes a richer corn flavor.
• If the masa dries out, you can add a little more water to help the hominy bind together better.
• Before adding your hominy to the meat grinder, you can add spices and herbs of your choice. I like to add toasted cumin seed, and of course, the inevitable roasted garlic. I also tried it one time with dried cayenne peppers ground in a spice mill...Whew...boy howdy...awesome for enchiladas...
• You can purchase a tortilla press from any Spanish Market, but making the tortillas can easily be done with the use of a rolling pin.
Peace, Hugs and traditional Masa,
Chef Michael Hayes