homemade hominy and other corny matters

What a sad story is corn in America.  Demonized now because of the commodification of agriculture and our reliance on feed corn, corn is viewed with a suspicious eye.  As a naïve Midwesterner, I’ve always loved corn.  I like popcorn, corn on the cob, cornnuts, cornbread, corn tortillas, corn salsa, tortilla chips, cornmeal, corn broth, corn chowder, corn stirfry…the list goes on.  The only kind of corn I don’t like is canned creamed corn.

Well, and high fructose corn syrup, which kind of starts out the same way.

I realized after reading Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, like so many of us did, that corn was a huge part of my diet as an American.  My very first diet seachange was to start cutting out preservatives and “hidden” sources of cheap corn in my food to shift my dollars away from Big Ag.

So I laughed in sympathy when Ayers Creek Farm owner Anthony Boutard began his talk for our Oregon Agriculture panel at the Food Justice Conference last month by shaking ears of corn at the audience, saying how mad he was that Pollan had ruined corn.

In 1922, McCall’s magazine ran an editorial on the introduction of new American fiction that would represent real, not nostalgic or idealized, American life…as American as corn.  I believe (partly as an addled corn addict, partly as a Midwesterner, and partly as a huge fan of Boutard’s corn) that we should rehab the reputation of American corn…as American as fiction.

We grow decent corn here in Oregon, believe it or not, and some of it is actually dried.  Homemade hominy is the perfect opportunity to start corn’s renaissance efforts.  I had the chance to make it last week, thanks to some red and yellow flint corn, already treated with hydrated lime, that Anthony brought down to Eugene for me.  Above, you can see a picture of the results: both my not-quite-successful attempt to remove the pericarp coating the inner kernel and the awesome freezing power of my new chest freezer, which just added a tiny bit of frost atop the corn.

Hominy can be pressure-canned or frozen.  I froze this batch because was a bit nervous about the stubborn clinging of the pericarp (the little nodule on the end is supposed to come off and didn’t, even with fierce rubbing) affecting the penetration of the heat in pressure canning, which sounds silly now that I type it.  Freezing is a lot less hassle.

My favorite use of hominy is what I call fake posole, a soup that isn’t even remotely like posole, save the pork and hominy.  I particularly like the combination of green chiles and pork.  In the soup pictured below, I simmered pork shoulder in a stock pot with onion, garlic, and bay leaf for a few hours, then shredded the meat and added some of my homemade salsa and a couple of cups of roasted chiles (frozen is fine) and the hominy.  The difference in using fresh (or fresh-frozen) hominy is that what’s usually mainly a starchy texture in the can becomes the most delicious, nutty, roasted corn flavor when you make your own.  It greatly enhances everything it touches, and I’ll never touch the canned stuff again.  For example, check out the pure white, washed out kernels in the soup (made with canned hominy), and the brilliant yellow and red stuff above.  The color differences, well, pale in comparison to the taste differences.

To make your own hominy, you’ll need hydrated lime (calcium hydroxide), also known as pickling or slacked/slaked lime (Spanish: cal, if you want to search for it in a Hispanic market), to break down the outer pericarp on the kernels.  I’ve also seen recipes from a very reliable source, the University of Georgia National Center for Home Food Preservation, that use lye (sodium hydroxide) or baking soda (sodium bicarbonate).

Edited to add, 2014:  I wanted to highlight Chef Mark Kosmicki’s method, as described in the comments below: “If you didn’t want to use chemicals, you could do this just fine with wood ash. I’ve done it recently with wonderful results. You just have to soak the corn in water the day before, then boil with a half cup ash per pound of corn, then boil till the skins are loose, an hour or two. Run it under water to clean, which is kind of hard.”
Also, in the intervening years between writing this post and editing it, I should mention that Anthony has published a fantastic book on corn, really a must-have for the locavore gardener/cook.  Expect science and recipes from renowned Portland chefs!

Here are Anthony’s instructions, slightly edited for clarity.  Enjoy!

Hominy

  • In an enamel pot (ed: important, since the lime is caustic and you don’t want it reacting with metal — I used my Le Creuset dutch oven and it cleaned up easily), add two tablespoons of hydrated lime per pound of corn.
  • Add water to cover the kernels by an inch or so.  Heat the pan to a bare simmer, don’t boil, and let cook for 40 minutes to an hour.  The solution will turn a lurid yellow and the fragrance of corn will fill the kitchen.
  • Take the pan off the heat and let the mixture steep overnight at room temperature or on the back stoop.
  • The next day, strain off the lime and liquid into the compost bucket (ed: will add calcium to your compost).  Rinse the kernels vigorously several times until they are clean.  The outer skin of the kernel, the pericarp will wash away (ed: I stress VIGOROUSLY and SEVERAL, but don’t worry if you don’t get it all off, since it’s still tasty.  I let it sit for two days and it was still hard to get the pericarp off).  The result is alkalinized corn, or nixtamal.
  • The nixtamal is cooked very slowly until it is tender, at which point it is called hominy. If you have a slow cooker, you can use it to cook the hominy (ed: highly recommended).  Fill your stockpot or slow cooker pot with the corn and fresh water.  Cover the kernels well, as they will absorb a good deal of water.  Bring to a boil and then simmer until the kernels split open as little flowers.  The hominy is now ready to use in a pozole or soup.

support for oregon house bill 2336: the direct farm marketing bill

I received an urgent news update from Ayers Creek farmer Anthony Boutard, who will be one of the speakers at the Food Justice conference at University of Oregon on Feb 19-21.  He and his wife Carol grow some of the most amazing produce to come out of our state in Gaston, OR.  Like farmers in the Willamette Valley, the Boutards are concerned with improving our local foodshed.  The sale of dried beans and corn is a crucial part of their operations, and they also sell preserves made from their ethereal berries (like the blackcaps above and Chester blackberries smiling at Anthony below).

Here’s the problem.

No clear regulatory structure exists for the preserves and dried grains/legumes we buy at the farmer’s market.  Thus, regulations are subject to the interpretation of inspectors, who can decide that a particular dried food is not safe to sell, for example, or require licenses for certain foods.  Oregon House Bill 2336, The Direct Farm Marketing Bill, clarifies rules for the sale of these things in a safe and cost-effective manner, keeping the best interests of both the farmer and consumer in mind. 

Please consider writing your Oregon House Representative this weekend if you support this bill.  To quote Anthony: “All that is needed is a statement in support of HB 2336, and a nice word or two about farmers’ markets and buying directly from a farmer to underscore the bill’s purpose. If you can relay a positive story or experience, even better. Legislators like to hear they are doing something positive, especially this session when they being called upon to cut services.”

The bill will go to the House floor any day now, so time is critical.

Thanks, everyone.  This is a time and place where you can make a real difference.

To learn more, please read Anthony’s report on the bill:

HB 2336: The Direct Farm Marketing Bill

The “Direct Farm Marketing Bill” has passed out of committee February 7th and is going to the floor of the Oregon House of Representatives for critical vote. We need people to call their representatives and urge a ‘yes’ vote on HB 2336. The phone number and email for your representative can be found at: http://www.leg.state.or.us/house/ Here is why this bill is important.

Over the last two decades, agriculture in Oregon has seen a marked increase in venues for selling agricultural products directly to the consumer. Farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture (CSA), and buying clubs have increased without a clear place in the regulatory structure. Historically, roadside stands selling produce, eggs and honey have been treated as exempt from licensing, but these new venues stretch that definition. HB 2336 provides necessary statutory guidance on this issue with a balanced and sensible regulatory approach to direct marketing. The provisions of the bill are the result of a year’s worth of meetings between the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the Oregon Farmers’ Market Association, farmers and legislators. This working group was chaired by Representative Matt Wingard.

The bill identifies foods that, from a food safety perspective, are regarded as either non-hazardous, or minimally hazardous, and that can be safely produced by the farmer and sold directly to the consumer without licenses or inspection. With the help of ODA staff, these definitions are tightly drawn. Foods that pose a greater hazard, such as sprouts, low-acid canned vegetables and fruits, and baked goods, are not included and must be processed in a licensed facility. The bill includes labeling requirements so the food can be traced to its source. It must be stressed that farmers’ market rules still prevail, regardless of licensing requirements. These organizations will still determine who can participate in the market, and what they can sell.

With its provisions regarding preserves and pickles, this bill provides room for innovation at a small-scale. New ideas invariably start at this level whether it is in someone’s kitchen or garage. Allowing farmers to try out new products at a small, manageable scale is an important step in fostering innovation. HB 2336 also includes a provision that allows the ODA to expand the list of foods that can be prepared at the farm, consistent with food safety. With the $20,000 annual limit on sales of these foods, the bill set up a clear threshold where the farmer must shift into a licensed facility. Finally, the ODA can withdraw the exemption in cases where the public health is deemed in jeopardy.

At the public hearing for HB 2336, the NW Food Processors and the Farm Bureau came out in opposition to the bill. Their testimony undermined the support of some members of the committee who were not part of the earlier process. Yesterday the work session, Representative Wingard and the staff from the Oregon Department of Agriculture did a great job clarifying what the bill does and doesn’t do. It was a long session for them, but they answered all the questions carefully and thoroughly. Their measured presentations eased the concerns of many members.

HB 2336 passed its first legislative hurdle yesterday evening when it passed out of the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources on a bipartisan 6 to 2 vote with a “do pass” recommendation. The ‘nay’ votes were also bipartisan, one D and one R, for what it is worth.

The bill now goes to the House floor. The lobbyists for the NW Food Processors and the Farm Bureau will likely try to stop this bill on the House floor. It is critical that citizens express their confidence in the farmers’ markets by calling or emailing their representative. The floor vote will be in a matter of days, so the contact needs to be made quickly. All that is needed is a statement in support of HB 2336, and a nice word or two about farmers’ markets and buying directly from a farmer to underscore the bill’s purpose. If you can relay a positive story or experience, even better. Legislators like to hear they are doing something positive, especially this session when they being called upon to cut services.

Once again, the contact information is at: http://www.leg.state.or.us/house/

Thank you,

Anthony and Carol Boutard

Ayers Creek Farm

Gaston, Oregon