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Mar 23, 2004, 9:24 PM

Post #1 of 6 (12927 views)


a molcajete, a clay comal, and some cal.

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With these simple things you really don't need many fancy recipes.

The tortillas that are handmade from masa with cal (not Maseca, but I would use it if I had to) are the foundation. When cooked on the clay comal brushed with cal so they puff up you almost don't need any more food, and a lot don't get any past here. I once ate tortillas with a 72 year old Zapotec who pulled a little salt shaker out of his pocket like a 10 year old kid during green apple season. And that was all we ate. We were both satisfied.....well, he split a banana with me afterward.

Beans. Since you are reading this you have electricity so you might as well go first class and get a crock-pot. It beats all for beans, the only beans you need to eat. The staining dark color means those high end micro nutrients that are all the rage now. A half kilo of those, a half or more of big onion whacked up, a number of garlic toes, some water, set it on LOW with the lid on and go to bed. When you get up put in a few sprigs more of epazote than you think you should, salt to taste and give them 20-30 minutes more. With up to snuff tortillas these beans are a nice addition in taste and nutrition.

Next step up is real flavor - salsa. There are oodles of types and you can use a book or know somebodyís mom to find a good one or two to your tastes for starts. Do it in the molcajete. Everybody knows its better. If garlic is in the mix, get it in there first and grind it into the stone almost. The order of grinding ingredients is important to taste in the molcajete, a blender doesnít give a damn. You are grinding to blend the flavors, and to maintain some textural variety. Like anything done by hand, there is a lot of sensual interaction between your intensions and the manual doing of it Ė you are really applying mind to matter. There are lots of fine judgments to be made, just as in tortilla cooking on the comal Ė itís all judgment too. The salsas are what are going to keep you from getting bored eating the same old thing Ė tortillas and beans. You can just keep jiggering the salsa.

Iíve seen some indigenous people middle-aged and with an amazing mouthful of great white teeth, and they looked like they couldnít afford dental care, nor pop. Joaquin used to work for the IMSS system as a compliance accountant. He traveled to all the different areas of Oaxaca staying in pueblos checking on things. He says you see these things, itís the calcium. The handmade masa is important, has more cal they say. Iíve seen Rollyís tortilla factory report, and it seems like they are batching the corn in the right way. And so I assume he is getting his cal in the masa, but the tortilla machine doesnít have the judgmental ability. It took about 150 years to make a machine that people would even eat the tortillas off of Ė it didnít happen until after 1950. Through the long flowering of the machine age they couldnít get a machine to do this right. Machine tortillas arenít that great, but people will at least now eat them. Hand tortilla making is time consuming, but anyone who is reading this has got spare time. It makes more sense than relaxation exercises or watching TV.

I should say that we use a wooden press, and two sheets of plastic bag sides as the separator to prevent sticking. Most do these days.

Now if youíre still hungry you can add other dishes. It wonít take much. They will fit like a flower in good soil. Too much of the wide variety of Mexican food can be like banda noise from 6 foot speakers. Remember how clear Jose Alfredo Jemenez was singing his own songs Ė his honest voice was the tortilla, the guitar was the salsa.

(This post was edited by TomG on Mar 24, 2004, 7:33 AM)


Mar 28, 2004, 11:01 AM

Post #2 of 6 (12898 views)


Re: [TomG] a molcajete, a clay comal, and some cal.

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TomG writes:
....Iíve seen some indigenous people middle-aged and with an amazing mouthful of great white teeth, and they looked like they couldnít afford dental care, nor pop. Joaquin used to work for the IMSS system as a compliance accountant. He traveled to all the different areas of Oaxaca staying in pueblos checking on things. He says you see these things, itís the calcium. The handmade masa is important, has more cal they say....

There is no question at least in my mind that tortillas prepared from "fresh" masa taste better than those prepared from "maseca"-style corn flour. However, asserting dietary superiority such as a higher calcium content is what I'd classify as foodie and/or cross-cultural romance.

1. Calcium hydroxide is used as a processing agent, not a direct food additive. It's used during nixtamalization, in which corn is cooked and then steeped in a calcium hydroxide solution to loosen the corn kernel's pericarp and modify the starch granules and protein structure. The corn is subsequently washed and drained before being ground. During the washing and draining, excess calcium used during the process would be lost down the drain.

2. Corn is nixtamalized for both fresh masa and during the production of maseca-style corn flour (which should not be confused with cornmeal). The difference between the two is downstream following milling, where fresh masa (referred to as "wet" masa in the trade) is immediately formed into tortillas, while masa for maseca-style corn flour is flash-dried for reconstitution sometime in the future.

3. Studies have found similar calcium levels in both home-made and "industrially"-manufactured tortillas. As an example, in a 1992 literature review entitled Maize in Human Nutrition the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization cited calcium levels of 104, 202, and 217 mg/100 gram sample in homemade tortillas, and 182, 198, and 205 mg/100 grams in "industrial" tortillas. In both cases this is a marked increase in calcium levels compared to the 48 mg/100 gram concentration identified in pre-nixtamalized corn.

4. Nixtamalization does have the downside of decreasing the total thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and carotene contents of masa compared to the precursor corn. The significance of this decrease is still being investigated with some researchers claiming the loss is offset by the increased bioavailability of the remaining contents, while others indicating that a loss is exactly that, a loss. In this area corn flour has a significant advantage over fresh masa in that the product can have these vitamins (as well as other nutrients, with iron and folic acid being the most commonly mentioned) added back to the product downstream of nixtamalization at a very low additional cost. GRUMA/GIMSA, the Mexican multinational corporation which controls a massive portion of the corn flour market (Maseca is their brand name in Mexico) is a major backer of nutritional research in the corn flour arena, and has been an active proponent of nutrient enriching or fortifying corn flour. Although one would hope that corporate benevolence is at play here it is also quite possible that having the import and export duty categories, and Mexican tax status changed as a result of the sale of an enriched product is a significant motivator here.

- ET

Other Amusing Sidenotes:

1. Comparison of black beans with other common types of dried beans, such as red or pinto will show you that the nutritional profiles are very similar.

2. Clay, in comparison to cast iron, various steel alloys, aluminum, or copper is an extremely inefficient conductor of heat. This means that for the same unit value of food heating a clay comal will require more fuel. If the fuel source is bottled gas ("GaaazzzZZZ!") it means that the user is paying more to heat a clay comal, and on the global picture consuming more natural resources. If heated with wood or charcoal you have increased user exposure to combustion products such as carbon monoxide, particulates, and PAHs, as well as the global issues of deforestation and air pollution.

(This post was edited by ET on Mar 28, 2004, 3:13 PM)


Apr 4, 2004, 7:14 PM

Post #3 of 6 (12863 views)


"Jesus Christ, what more do you want?"

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I was rereading one of John Steinbeck's lesser classics, Tortilla Flat and came across this passage:

At about this time in California it became the stylish thing for school nurses to visit the classes and catechize the children on intimate details of their home life. In the first grade, Alfredo was called to the principal's office, for it was thought that he looked thin.

The visiting nurse, trained in child psychology, said kindly, "Freddie, do you get enough to eat?"

"Sure" said Alfredo.

"Well, now. Tell me what you have for breakfast."

"Tortillas and beans," said Alfredo.

The nurse nodded her head dismally to the principal. "What do you have when you go home for lunch?"

"I don't go home."

"Don't you eat at noon?"

"Sure. I bring some beans wrapped up in a tortilla."

Actual alarm showed in the nurse's eyes, but she controlled herself. "At night what do you have to eat?"

"Tortillas and beans."

Her psychology deserted her. "Do you mean to stand there and tell me you eat nothing but tortillas and beans?"

Alfredo was astonished. "Jesus Christ," he said, "what more do you want?"

In due course the school doctor listened to the nurse's horrified report. One day he drove up to Teresina's house to look into the matter. As he walked through the yard the creepers, the crawlers, and the stumblers were shrieking one terrible symphony. The doctor stood in the open kitchen door. With his own eyes he saw the vieja go to the stove, dip a great spoon into a kettle, and sow the floor with boiled beans. Instantly the noise ceased. Creepers, crawlers, and stumblers went to work with silent industry moving from bean to bean, pausing only to eat them. The vieja went back to her chair for a few moments of peace. Under the bed, under the chairs, under the stove the children crawled with the intentness of little bugs. The doctor stayed two hours, for his scientific interest was piqued. He went away shaking his head.

He shook his head incredulously while he made his report. "I gave them every test I know of," he said, "teeth, skin, blood, skeletons, eyes, coordination. Gentlemen, they are living on what constitutes a slow poison, and they have from birth. Gentlemen, I tell you I have never seen healthier children in my life!" His emotion overcame him. "The little beasts," he cried. " I never saw such teeth in my life. I never saw such teeth!"


Apr 5, 2004, 2:14 PM

Post #4 of 6 (12841 views)


Re: [ET] "Jesus Christ, what more do you want?"

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It been a long time since I read Tortilla Flats, I forgot the wonderful texture.

In defense of the calcium issue, I call attention to the fact that some of my handmade tortillas have some while calcium sticking in areas. Also My calcium layer on the comal wears down. Whether it is absorbed internally is beyond me.

Anyway, a great find. A wonderful passage.

Lower your expectation like a poor Mexican and things get better. I've been in yards just like that and kitchens where matters are only slightly improved. As always the kids are the happiest. Why they seem happier than rich kids deserves a serious book, by the likes of Steinbeck.

Carol Schmidt

Apr 7, 2004, 8:56 AM

Post #5 of 6 (12821 views)


Re: [ET] "Jesus Christ, what more do you want?"

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I've been thinking that Mexican kids seem happier than US kids, myself, and I was thinking the reason was that from the start, they get held and hugged and paid attention to far more than the US kids I can think of. Not enough money for strollers and walkers? That means the kids get carried! It's not a sign of weakness for Mexican men to carry their kids and play with them, as far as I can see, and more leisure time, less frenetic rat race, means the kids benefit. Fewer computer games, more time with human beings. I sit in the Jardin for hours watching the kids play with a simple ball or even an empty can, the way we used to when I was growing up in the '40s and '50s.

But that simple, healthy diet of tortillas, rice and beans is being supplemented too much by candy and junk food, and Mexico is now #2 on obesity, after the US, last I read.

I remember a story about one of those visiting nurses to a US school wanting to turn in some kid for child mistreatment who brought only burritos to school for lunch every day. Someone intervened and proved to the nurse that the burrito was far more nutritious than most of the lunches the US kids brought. The story may be apocryphal and may even have grown out of that Tortilla Flats scene! I know I eat much healthier, and cheaper, when in Mexico.

Carol Schmidt


Apr 7, 2004, 9:28 AM

Post #6 of 6 (12818 views)


Re: [Carol Schmidt] "Jesus Christ, what more do you want?"

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"Not enough money for strollers and walkers? That means the kids get carried!"

Not too long ago there were several posts about a kind of racism inherent in making this sort of assumption..."not enough money". Many women prefer to carry their babies and small children either in their arms or slung into a rebozo on their backs because of hundreds of years of tradition, unpaved or cobblestone streets that make strollers impossible, and because it is far healthier for the baby to be next to its mother's body than to be in a stroller or a plastic baby carrier.

If an infant goes from the womb to being held in arms next to its mother or father's (or grandmother, aunt or sister's) body, then the infant hasn't moved so terribly far. It's still held next to a beating heart. When it's a little older, it moves to the rebozo, leaving its mother's hands free to work or carry things while keeping the child securely swaddled.

It's only in the bigger towns and cities that we've started to see strollers and baby carriers. A mother I know has 4-month-old twin boys, great big babies. She has a twin stroller because she can't carry both of them at once, but it's extremely difficult for her to maneuver on the very narrow sidewalks and cobblestones here. The only strollers I've seen in town have been for foreigners' babies and for babies belonging to la cremita visiting from Guadalajara.

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