December 04, 2015


Somewhere after blackberry swirl cheesecake and the end of summer, I lost my blogging zeal. It's kind of hard to talk about food and share recipes when some pretty horrific things are happening in the world all around us and it can feel almost impossible to find the right words to talk about them, especially in the limited context of a food blog. Also, according to several sources blogging is dead. So that didn't help with my bad case of blog neglect. And the truth is, much of my old recipe-sharing and food-rambling energy now goes to my Facebook and Instagram feeds, not to mention the PBS blog. So for a girl who tries to not overdo the social media thing, it can all get to be a bit much. When I started this blog just over 4 years ago, I didn't have any of those other outlets. But this is where it all started, and it is always nice to meander back and dangle my legs from this exact place and dispatch a long-overdue greeting and some recipes. So. Hello! How have you been? And does anyone else out there also feel like crawling into a full body cloak these days and not coming out again until spring? Because that's kind of where I'm at right now. 

(Found on Facebook, if you know who created this, let me know so I can credit them, it's brilliant)

Yep. Once the trees are bare and the temperature begins to dip below zero, there's a strange growl from deep within that urges me to go into hiding. It's the sword-wielding winter beast. She really, really likes wood stoves. And blankets. A friend just posted this article about how the colder weather makes us want to sleep more. What if instead of fighting it, we indulged our inclination to lay down our weary little heads and sleep for just a bit longer in the winter months? Bears do it. Skunks do it. And bats and snakes and groundhogs. It seems only normal that we should at the very least, relent our frenzy of activities. I loved this excerpt from the article:
Villages and even small towns were silent, with barely a column of smoke to reveal a human presence.  As soon as the weather turned cold, people all over France shut themselves away and practiced the forgotten art of doing nothing at all for months on end.
This year, I plan to embrace my inner bear. Though in the last few months since I last wrote, I've been anything but hibernating. On the recipe front, I've got a backlog of new recipes to share with you, so I figured I should do a little round-up here, a little five-in-one if you don't mind, to get us all caught up and up-to-date.

The first one is this Rye Berry Salad which features red cabbage, feta, and dill. I love the chew of shiny rye berries, but you can use pretty much any whole grain to make this dish. They turn this into a wholesome salad, perfect for wintery days.

The second is a beloved Italian recipe for Pickled Eggplant in Olive Oil, one of the most delicious things I've ever learned to make. There are a hundred different ways to make this recipe in Italy and each family has their own treasured recipe. In this video, I share the way I was taught to make it.

Next up are my mom's Maple Walnut Stuffed Baked Apples, an easy seasonal favourite. And the ultimate healthy comfort food.

Then there was this Roasted Red Pepper Pesto, a fun one to make, eat, and shoot.

And finally, a very seasonal Pumpkin Maple Flan (or Crème Caramel). And an appropriate pre-hibernation food. 

There. That brings us at least somewhat up to date with the recipes. I'll be back with more recipes soon and perhaps even find the words to say some of the things that have been on my mind that are not always food-related. Until then, may your sleeps be a tiny bit longer.

August 27, 2015

Blackberry Swirl Cheesecake (with a new video!)

I don't know about where you live, but over here the blackberries are insane this year! 

I've talked about my love of blackberries before, and how they always remind me of my stepdad because he is the most dedicated blackberry picker I've ever met. Whenever I go visit him, no matter the time of year, I know I can always count on an amazing blackberry smoothie for breakfast. All I have to do is open up the freezer to find mountains of blackberries in there, memories of late August afternoons spent foraging. 

I'm a bit lazier about picking and I just gobble them all right away for the most part, but this year I did manage to whip up this cheesecake.

In all honesty, there aren't that many blackberries in the cake. It's really all just about making the swirl. Let's talk about the swirl. I've been making a lot of swirls in my desserts this summer and let me tell you, there's something weirdly meditative, calming, mesmerizing, and totally addictive about swirling colors and textures around. 

I was thinking they should make kids (and grown-ups) who struggle with ADD do swirls. It takes all your attention and concentrates it into one glorious action until your brain is nothing but one liquid color melding into another. Totally gnarly. Totally groovy. Have I lost my mind with swirls? Yes, quite probably. You'll just have to try it to see if I'm exaggerating or not. Happy swirling!

Oh yeah, the recipe. Click right here my dear friends. xox

August 05, 2015

Butterflied Grilled Cornish hen (or chicken)

Many moons ago, I went through a painful break-up and found myself very alone with a sore tender heart on Valentine's Day. I decided I would make myself the fanciest meal I could conjure up and enjoy my own company over candlelight. So I bought a Cornish hen and a great bottle of wine. I stuffed that little bird, roasted it up with some veggies, got out some nice linens, and proceeded to wine and dine myself. It was empowering, delicious, memorable. When I think of it now, it makes me think of this video by the marvellous Andrea Dorfman and Tanya Davis:

That was one of the few times I'd ever eaten Cornish hen, mainly because it's hard to find a source of good local, organic ones. But this summer, I've rekindled my romance with the sweet hen. As it turns out, Cornish hen are not so fancy after all (or even necessarily a hen for that matter), they're actually just a younger version of the regular broiler chicken. I learned that from our friends at the farmer's market who have got me hooked on their organically-raised Cornish hen. They also told me about butterflying the bird (also called spatchcocking, though that sounds kind of naughty doesn't it?) to get quick, even cooking and the most tender meat possible. (And that's saying a lot since Cornish hen is already incredibly moist and tender). 

As a teenager, I always had a song that embodied the feeling of each summer, usually whatever song was being played on the radio the most. I still do that. (In case you're wondering, this is my summer 2015 song). In the same vein, there's sometimes one dish that embodies a particular summer. And this summer's is most definitely this butterflied Cornish hen grilled on wood coals.

I feel like I'm only just now emerging from a somber couple of weeks. First, there was the recent passing of the DARK Act in Congress which was like a punch in the stomach. In case you missed my last post, the DARK Act would kill GMO labelling in America, making it illegal for individual states to have mandatory GMO labelling. So if it gets through the Senate, then Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut's GMO labelling laws would be overturned. The bill was heavily sponsored by big food companies (Kraft, Kellogg's, Coca-Cola, etc) and of course, the folks at Monsanto who seem willing to put any amount of money down to make sure the public won't know which foods contain their GMOs. The only hope now is to convince Senators to vote against this un-democratic bill so it doesn't go into law.

Then, the week after the DARK Act passed, our piglets got attacked by what we think was a coyote. One of them was badly injured and we spent several days trying to nurse him back to health. After three long days performing gruesome wound cleanings of the kind I would have never thought myself capable of, and three long nights sleeping in the tent close to their pen to make sure coyotes didn't come back for them, we made the heartbreaking decision to put the little guy down. I spent the whole day in tears, wondering if we were doing the right thing, if we should keep trying to nurse him back to health, or if we should have put him out of his misery much sooner. During those days of tending to his wounds, I got very attached to him and to the hope that he would make a comeback. He was our favorite from the start: the runt of the pack, small, freckled, with ears so floppy we called him Eeyore. I hope he is in a better place now.

It was my first experience with injured farm animals and making such a difficult decision. It made me question how I feel about eating meat since even if little Eeyore had gotten better, he would have eventually been slaughtered for meat. I've always believed that if a person chooses to be a carnivore, they should be aware of where their meat comes from and what kind of life the animal had. Getting to know a living being whose life you are one day going to take raises all kinds of questions about meat-eating that I've long struggled with, even more so now. My rationale for choosing to eat meat boils down to three main things. The first is that animals kill each other for food in the wild, and we are (albeit more and more distantly) part of that natural world. The second is that many vegetarians I know have experienced severe vitamin B12 deficiencies, having to take supplements in order to get better and I'd rather not cut anything out of my diet that could make me deficient in key nutrients. And finally, purely selfishly, because it tastes so damn good. But not all meat is created equal and eating meat should come with a responsibility. The responsibility to source it carefully, from animals that have lived a happy, healthy life outdoors, with access to fresh air and pasture and who have been slaughtered quickly, painlessly, and humanely. Any day, I would choose a vegetarian diet over eating generic factory-farmed meat, especially given this alarming recent development.

During the three difficult days of nursing our piglet, I spoke to a very kind vet on the phone, a guardian angel who talked us through our options. As he said, choosing to end an animal's life is not an easy thing to do, but an instant death is likely preferable to slow prolonged suffering. And when I think about it, that's probably what I would choose for myself if I were so badly injured. What's for sure is that the bacon we'll be eating this winter will be even more appreciated than ever before.

And while we wait for that tasty bacon, you'll find me grilling the world's most juicy tender Cornish hen, thanks to our friends at Common Wealth Farm.

Click here for my recipe.

Make a tiny wish! Cornish hen wishbone...
Three plump Cornish hen!

July 15, 2015

Healthier Homemade "Oreo" Cookies

I grew up in a junk food-free household but as a kid, I would secretly go across the street to get my sugar fix. My friend and I had an unspoken agreement that whenever I would come over, she would raid the cupboards and bust out whatever boxed sugary treats she could find. Oreo cookies were the prize find. At the risk of having you un-follow this blog, I'm going to tell you that we had this thing we did where we would scrape off all the Oreo cream filling and collect as much of it as we could, roll it into a giant ball and stick it in the freezer to gnaw away at later. Yup. Like the strange sugar-obsessed demented squirrels that we were. It's a miracle her parents never banned me from their house.

I was scrolling through my Instagram feed the other day and a blogger I follow had posted a photo of the new Oreo thins. The photo description encouraged her followers to enter an Oreo contest. Her photo was hashtagged #sponsored and #oreothins so I clicked on the hashtag and saw that oodles of popular Instagrammers were being sponsored to post photos of the new Oreo thins. 

What irked me about this is that, as some of you know, I'm working on a documentary about GMO labelling and I've been doing a lot of research to find out who is preventing GMO labelling from happening here in Canada and the United States. It turns out that among many other junk food companies, the company that owns Oreos is paying big bucks to lobbyists in Washington to sweet talk politicians into voting in favor of the DARK Act (HR1599) which would overturn Vermont, Maine and Connecticut's democratic GMO labelling laws. 

In fact, this bill would make it illegal for any state to pass a GMO labelling law ever. Instead, it proposes national "voluntary" GMO labelling. What does this mean? It means if a company feels like it, they can tell us their food contains GMOs and if they don't feel like it, you're shit out of luck. And guess what? We've already had a "voluntary" GMO labelling system in place for the past 20 years and do you know how many companies have chosen to label the GMO ingredients on their products? Zero. Not one single company. If this bill passes we can all kiss bye bye to GMO-labelling in America. Years of hard work by activists, farmers, chefs, politicians, moms and dads? GONE. Hasta la vista. If you want to know what's in your food, better move to Europe.

The sad thing is, all that lobbying paid off because just yesterday, the House Agriculture Committee voted to pass the bill which now goes directly to the House floor for a vote as early as next week. But here's the encouraging thing, good politicians DO listen to what their constituents want, and here's the proof:

So we need to rally the troops, get all hands on deck, and call, tweet, visit, email our elected reps to tell them to vote NO on HR1599 because we have a right to know what's in the food we eat. It seems like such a no-brainer, it's mind-boggling that we're having to fight so hard for this. I've heard people say "it's not a big deal, just buy organic". Aside from the fact that this bill threatens the future of organic and non-GMO agriculture, it's important to realize that not everyone can afford or even access organic or non-GMO certified foods. It shouldn't matter where you live or what your budget is, every person deserves the right to informed decision making, especially when it comes to what we put into our bodies.

It never ceases to astound me that, despite the fact that 90% of Americans want GMOs labeled, our elected officials would ignore their constituents and vote for what junk food companies with deep pockets have convinced them to do instead.  64 countries around the world already have GMO labeling, so why do we have to be fighting such a gigantic battle to get that basic right here? GMO labelling is scheduled to go into effect in Vermont in 2016. If this bill passes, Vermont's democratically passed law will be overturned. It begs the questions, who gets to write our laws, people or corporations? 

On the paid lobbying list for HR1599, alongside Oreo's parent company, you see the usual suspects: Monsanto ($1.2 million), Kellogg ($700,000), Coca-Cola ($3 million), Kraft Foods ($350,000)... to name just a few. It makes my brain explode when I think of how much money these companies are willing to invest into making sure no one knows which foods contain GMOs. And that's not counting the millions of dollars they've shelled out to fight individual state GMO labelling bills such as the ones in California and Washington.

So I wrote a friendly note on my fellow blogger's sponsored photo, telling her about what Oreo is doing. I said no thank-you to the Oreo thins contest but that if she did a homemade Oreo recipe post, I'd be all over it. She deleted my comment. Actually she deleted all the comments by all of her followers who don't like Oreos or who questioned why she was promoting Oreos. I wondered if Oreos made her delete the comments as part of their sponsorship agreement. At any rate, I gathered she was not going to be doing a homemade Oreos post anytime soon. So I decided I would.

The recipe took a bit of testing, it was finicky because I was trying to avoid refined sugar and white flour, etc. (My mom would have approved). In fact, I was trying to avoid just about every single ingredient normally found in Oreos, except for the cocoa and the baking soda:


In the end, I arrived at 2 recipes. Both are made with buckwheat flour which I've always found goes well with chocolate. One version has organic butter, egg, and coconut sugar, and you can find that one on my latest PBS Food post. The other version which I'm sharing below is dairy-free, egg-free, gluten-free, and only sweetened with honey. And despite being "everything-free", it's surprisingly full of flavour and goodness!

As a final note, please sign and share the petition against HR1599 because we all have the right to know what's in our food. Also, check here to see if your elected rep is on the committees that will be looking at this bill before it goes to a vote. Or if they're a cosponsor of the bill. Please call their office, write to them, let them know how you feel! I've started working my way through the list of undecided cosponsors and tweeting to every one of them. Let's sway them in favor of democracy. Because as it's been said, "democracy is like a muscle, either you use it or you lose it".

Homemade Healthier "Oreo" Cookies

(This version is dairy-free, egg-free, and gluten-free. For a butter and egg-based version of these, check out my post on PBS Food.)

Cookie dough:

1 cup buckwheat
1/2 cup tapioca flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1/4 cup softened coconut oil
5 Tbsp white or creamed honey
1 tsp vanilla
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 level teaspoon baking soda

Cream Filling:

3/4 cup raw cashews
2 Tbsp white or creamed honey
3 Tbsp coconut oil, at room temperature (use refined, expeller-pressed if you want to avoid the coconut taste)
1/4 tsp vanilla or peppermint extract (I highly recommend the peppermint!)

To make the cream filling, place the cashews in a small bowl and cover with water. Soak them for at least an hour, or overnight. Drain the water and pat the cashews dry with a clean towel. To make the cream filling, you can either use a high-powered blender or an immersion stick blender. Place all the ingredients together and blend on highest setting for several minutes to obtain a smooth thick paste. Place this in the fridge while you work on the dough.

To make the cookies, preheat your oven to 325 F. Whisk all the dry ingredients together. If you have a food processor, simply pulse the coconut oil and honey together until creamy, then add the dry ingredients and pulse until they come together into a ball. If mixing by hand, cream the coconut oil and honey together. Add the dry ingredients mixture and mixing with a wooden spoon until the dough begins to come together. Use your hands to shape the dough into a ball.  Flatten it into a disk. Sprinkle a little buckwheat flour on a rolling pin and on a clean surface and begin to roll out the dough to about 1/8th or even 1/16th of an inch thick. (The thinner the dough, the crispier the cookie). Continue to sprinkle a little buckwheat flour under the dough as you roll it, it will help you lift off the cookies to transfer them to the pan. This dough is delicate and does not flip over well, but with flour sprinkled on top and bottom, it will roll out nicely.  If your dough is simply too sticky to roll out, you can knead in a bit more buckwheat flour (not more than 1 Tbsp at a time) or chill the dough in the fridge for about 10 minutes. 

Once your dough is rolled thin, use a round cookie cutter or the top of a small drinking glass, about 2 inches in diameter, to cut the cookies into circles. Using a thin spatula, carefully transfer them to a parchment paper-lined or greased cookie sheet. Bake for about 10 minutes in a 325F oven, but check them often as they can burn very quickly, and burnt buckwheat does not taste very nice. (If your dough is rolled very thin, they may bake even more quickly). Cool the cookies on a rack, they will crisp a bit as they cool. 

To assemble, make sure the cookies are completely cooled (or the filling will melt). Coconut oil hardens significantly when chilled. If your cream filling is cold and hardened, you can roll it into little balls, about 3/4 inch in size and gently squeeze it between 2 cookies, making sure to press on the centre of the cookie so it doesn’t crack along the edges. Alternately, if your filling is not too cold and still spreadable, you can simply butter it on the bottom of one cookie and press another cookie on top. If the filling is left at room temperature too long, the oil may begin to separate, if this happens, simply chill it again and whisk it back into a cream. The filling amount should be fairly thin, about 1/8th inch thick. The cookies will keep for about 1 week. Enjoy!

June 23, 2015

Hakurei Turnip and Shiitake Mushrooms on Soba Noodles

If you've never experienced the bliss of crunching on a Hakurei turnip, you're missing out. What I love about Hakurei (aside from its creamy tender awesomeness) is that it's not readily available in most grocery stores even though many farmers grow them. What this means is that you have to seek it out. It's a vegetable begging to be pursued and found, ideally close to its place of origin and the hands that grew it: at farm stands, farmer's markets, or through a CSA share with a local farmer. In a world where we are spoiled enough to find pretty much anything we could dream of at one-stop grocery stores, I get a secret pleasure knowing that there are still some things that you need to get right from the farmer who grew them.

I've been making various incarnations of this Hakurei & soba noodle recipe pretty much non-stop this spring, ever since I laid hands on the first Hakurei of the season. I can't seem to get tired of it. I could eat it (and have done so) for days on end. It's tasty, light, healthy, and quick to make.

I was lucky that one of our neighbouring organic farms, Bahner Farm, had a lush bed of Hakurei and kindly harvested some so I could make this month's recipe video. I loved working on this video because a) I got to visit Bahner Farm, b) got to eat a LOT of soba noodles and Hakurei, c) got to try out my new bling bling knife from Le Creuset (it's nothing short of amazing!!), and d) I got to make my baby turnips dance to another fabulous Lullatone tune. (I always did love to play with my food). 

You can find the recipe over on PBS Food

Now, go forth my friends and eat some Hakurei!

June 11, 2015

Your help is needed + chocolate sesame smoothies!

I'm fairly certain I'm not alone in saying that given the choice, I'd rather spend my time looking at food porn than reading about agricultural policy or writing a letter to my elected representative. But no matter which way you slice it, food is political. And if you love food and believe you've got a right to know what you're eating, there are 2 things happening right now that are putting our food democracy at risk. One is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the other is a bill making its way through Congress, called the DARK Act. If you don't have time to read on, it takes 30 seconds to send a letter to Congress: here and here. It may seem like it won't make a difference, but these types of letters do have an impact and the more people sign on, the greater that impact. 

First, the TPP. A strange beast that no one has fully gotten their head around yet for the simple reason that the documents are top secret. They haven't been publicly released and even most Congress members haven't been able to read the details of the agreement. The TPP is a massive free trade deal that would give sweeping new powers to corporations and make it illegal for countries to pass laws protecting health care, labour wages, consumer rights, and the environment if any of those laws were seen as obstacles to selling a product. So if TPP passes, it will have devastating impacts on our democracy, our environment, our farmers, and needless to say, on our food. Basically, it's NAFTA on crack. TPP documents have also identified GMO labelling as an "unjustified trade restriction". What does this mean? It means that just as we are finally on the verge of winning GMO labeling in the US, the TPP could eliminate the ability of countries around the world to label GMOs or impose common sense restrictions on the sale of genetically engineered seed and food in their countries. Tomorrow, Congress votes on fast-tracking the TPP, so it's very important that as many people as possible sign this petition.

The second thing is the DARK Act which is quickly working its way through Congress and would deny the right of individual states to pass GMO labelling laws. Vermont is the first state in the US to have passed an unconditional GMO labelling law and it is set to take effect on July 1, 2016. Monsanto and its junk food industry friends are in a panic. They've already filed a lawsuit against the state of Vermont, and now their lobbyists are hard at work to pass the act (HR1599), which would make it illegal for individual states to label GMOs. If they're so proud of their GMOs, why not label them and give us all the choice whether to eat them or not? 90% of Americans want GMOs labeled and if this act is passed, Congress would be siding with biotech companies instead of the vast majority of citizens. Click here to add your voice to the petition against HR1599. You can also write a letter to your elected rep and click here to find out if your Congress member is a sponsor of HR1599. The best thing to do is to call your elected rep's office directly and simply ask them to oppose HR1599 because we all have a right to know what we are eating.

Have you made it this far? If so, I love you. And I give you this chocolate sesame smoothie, I hope you like it! 

And in case you missed this one on my Facebook page this week, it oh so delightfully nails the problem with GMOs…

May 29, 2015

Spruce Tip Jelly!

Jelly that tastes like a forest and all things wonderful and wild? Yes please.

Spruce tips are indeed edible, they're packed with vitamin C, and spring is the time to pick them. Making jars of this jelly is like bottling up a little sliver of the invigorating smell of spruce trees and springtime, to eat all year round. 

I've already written all about this one over on my PBS Food post where you'll find the recipe, so I will keep it short and just leave you with the video recipe and a few photos for today. Let me know if you make it!

May 12, 2015

On surviving Mother's Day + Honey Fennel Gingerbread

I wanted to write a Mother's Day post, at the very least acknowledge the occasion with a special recipe, a kind thought, a photo of my mom and I, anything. But I began Sunday morning by accidentally going on Facebook. That did not go so well for me. I forgot last year's note to self to avoid FB like the plague on Mother's Day (and also ideally hide in a dark hole and not come out for days after). 

Yup. Some years are rougher than others. It's funny how grief doesn't follow a linear or logical path. It's been close to 6 years since my mom died, and I'm still at times whammed in the gut, usually when I least expect it. Most of the time, I'm fine. As Hope Edelman says in this year's Mother's Day Letter to Motherless Daughters: "A mother-sized hole will always exist in your life. But as the author Abigail Thomas has said, eventually you get used to never getting used to it." Nailed it.

My mom actually hated Mother's Day. She thought it was a corporate hallmark holiday that was cheesy and overly-commercial. So there. It makes me laugh when I think of it. Mother's Day rubbed her anti-establishment spirit the wrong way, for probably all the same reasons she wanted me and my sister to call her by her actual name, instead of mommy. But I think she secretly delighted in anything special we did to mark the occasion. For all her rebelliousness against mainstream culture, she had the most tender heart I've ever met.

My mom and our unconventional post-modern art 'Christmas tree', circa 1985

Still, she always made a point of protesting if we did anything for Mother's Day. Save it for my birthday, she would say, that is the real day you should be celebrating me. I try to remind myself of this every year, sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn't. My boyfriend also lost his mother, a few years before mine, so our approach is to just kind of pretend Mother's Day isn't happening and try to go about our regular activities. Denial seems like a lame way to go about it, but for now it's all we've got.

With rarely-seen curlers in her hair, which she saw as an opportunity to be a goofball

So if any of you out there also found it to be a hard day to get through this year, for whatever reason…  a) please know you were not alone, b) I've got two things for you: my best gingerbread recipe, and these words that the one and only Helen Rosner posted on Facebook, which I found piercingly honest and funny and totally awesome and comforting:

"Love to all having a rough day because you don't have a mom, don't have the mom you want, aren't a mom & want to be, are a mom & don't want to be, hate old photos, or hate brunch."

I happen to love brunch and old photos, so I guess at least I have that going for me. More importantly, I had the mother I wanted, so I am infinitely blessed, no matter how much pain her physical absence causes me.

For my Honey Fennel Gingerbread recipe, whose ambrosial aroma has been clinically proven to melt away loneliness and post-holiday angst (or at the very least, just make a really really nice snack with tea), click hereAnd for those of you who are lucky enough not to suffer from Mother's Day PTSD, I hope it was a sunny and love-filled day this year. 

May 06, 2015

Tortillas will never be the same: nixtamalizing whole corn tortillas in Mexico!

This winter I gave myself a very big gift. The gift of Mexico. It was an antidote to a notoriously brutal Nova Scotian winter, but also to a confusing time in my life, one where the constant shifting back and forth between two lives (one in Maine and one in Nova Scotia) had worn me down. Wanting to put down roots but unable to take the leap in one definitive direction, I chose to just veer off-course entirely and get some perspective from a different vista, recharging my batteries while doing some much-needed work to inch closer to my master's thesis completion.

I swam in the ocean and fed my freckles (who greedily drank the sun and multiplied tenfold), consumed vast quantities of mangoes, avocados, papayas, and (!) octopus, met some inspiring new faces, and generally became acquainted with the gentle pace of life in the tiny coastal town of San Augustinillo. You've got to love a lifestyle where your daily to-do list includes eating a whole coconut, on the beach. 

Having discovered true bliss

Indeed, the high point of each day was walking down the hill to the village's only grocer to buy an extra-large green coconut, its top expertly lopped off with a few decisive strokes of machete, a straw popped into the exposed fleshy white bubble. And off we'd go, me and my coconut, nature's most refreshing drink. The best part: no plastic bottle, no waste. After drinking my coconut (usually on the sand, where coconuts are meant to be sipped), I'd return home, along the way requesting a few more chops from my machete-wielding friend to expose the gelatinous tender flesh inside. Unlike the dry brittle stuff we get up north, fresh coconut meat is soft, the jello of my dreams. A meal in and of itself. 

It will probably come as no big surprise to anyone who knows me that my most memorable moments of the trip revolved around food. But towering above the mountain of magical food moments (coconut oil-fried platano macho, chipotle shrimp eaten on the beach, fresh-fried chicharron at the market), was by far my journey's highlight: learning how to nixtamalize whole corn and make traditional tortillas with Elena. A game changer.

I met Elena at the friendly family-run posada where I stayed for a month, El Recinto Del Viento. She came daily to cook and clean, sometimes bearing small bags of beautifully-trimmed, pan-ready nopalitos (cactus), or free-range eggs from her chickens. She often couldn't hold back a good laugh at the strange fruit I would bring back from the market and ask her how to eat. Early on, we got talking about corn and when I learned that, like many rural Oaxacans, she grows her own year's worth supply of corn and nixtamalizes it every evening in order to make fresh tortillas for her whole extended family the next morning, it was all I could do to just invite myself right over.

I've wanted to learn how to make tortillas from whole corn for a long time. The 'masa harina' (nixatamalized corn flour) that is sold in grocery stores is made in large part from American-grown GMO corn, except for Bob's Red Mill which is GMO-free. (As an aside, most of the corn used to make tortillas in Mexico is GMO corn imported from the United States. Cheap, highly-subsidized American corn has been flooding Mexico ever since NAFTA, causing the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers who have been forced to leave their land in search of jobs in cities or in the United States. You can read more about that in this excellent article by Peter Canby. And about the GMO contamination of native Mexican corn here.) At any rate, if you want the real deal, a true flavour-packed tortilla, the way to go is whole corn kernels, not masa harina. And since we grow our own organic field corn, it seems like a no-brainer that we should know how to make our own fresh tortillas. But the whole nixtamalization thing was always a bit of a mystery and I'd been lazy about learning how to do it on my own. Now, thanks to Elena's generous guidance and teachings, nixtamalization has taken my love of corn to a whole other level.

Nixtamalization is the magical process whereby whole corn kernels are boiled and soaked in limewater. It's the equivalent of using sourdough to make bread (i.e.: dramatically boosting nutrient content, digestibility, and flavor). In a nutshell, here's what it does to corn:
  • It increases the nutritional value of corn exponentially, making the nutrients more readily available for the body to absorb. For instance, it increases calcium content by 750%! (For corn-dependent cultures, it's crucial to good health and avoiding the creepy-sounding pellagra, a disease found in cultures whose diet is heavily corn-based but who do not practice nixtamalization)
  • It softens the corn, breaking down its outer skin and changing its chemical composition so that it can be ground into a soft pliable dough, known as masa.
  • Nixtamalization reduces carcinogenic mycotoxins which are naturally-occurring on corn, diminishing their content by over 90%
  • Nixtamalization chemically changes the corn, releasing its flavours and aromas, hence that indescribable corn smell that makes one swoon when walking by a tortilleria

It's a fascinating subject to read about, one on which I geeked-out for hours on end after Elena's lesson. And if you're like me and want to know more, you must read the world's most entertaining, informative article about nixtamalization: Dave Arnold's Mesoamerican Miracle Megapost, where he even figures out a way to nixtamalize rye. That guy is my hero.

I was lucky that our expedition to Elena's coincided with my favorite gringo farmer's visit to Mexico, and that we were able to learn nixtamalizing together, especially since corn is one of his favorite crops to grow. We arrived at Elena's in the late afternoon. We first chatted and walked around, tasting tamarind out of plump pods, straight from her tree. We admired her ciruela (plum) trees with their shapely branches, barren of leaves but covered in compact, yet-to-ripen green fruit. Elena's family may not have a lot in the way of economic wealth but they are rich people when it comes to food and knowledge, and the kind of abundance that fertile, healthy soils shower upon you. There is a fulfillment and dignity that comes from living a life where you are so directly connected to the source of the food you eat on a daily basis. 

Elena showed us the cream-colored ears of corn (with the occasional purple fleck) that she and her husband grow in the hills near their home and we compared notes on corn varieties. When I told her that we grow a variety of deep yellow corn, she said "oh you're lucky, yellow corn is more flavourful than white!" In fact, I heard this from several people, but white corn seems to be favored in many parts of Mexico, due to the more pliable, workable tortillas it produces. But aside from the popularity of white corn, Mexican corn is a smorgasbord of all colours, shapes, and sizes... to be expected from the country known as the birthplace of corn. Having seen purple-blue, bright rose red, and even jade green Oaxacan corn, I am now dreaming of rainbows of tortillas.

One of the native corn varieties at the Mazunte organic farmer's market

To nixtamlize the corn, Elena measured out 4 kilos, the amount she makes every night for the next morning's tortillas (she has a large family and they eat tortillas with breakfast, lunch, and dinner). Then she added about a cup of "cal" or lime to a large metal pail of water and boiled the corn in the limewater over her outdoor wood stove. She boils the corn for about 30 minutes before removing it from the heat and it turns yellow from the chemical reaction with the lime. She says you know the corn is ready to be removed from the heat when the outer skin has started dissolving and the kernels have plumped nicely.

After she placed the metal pail aside to cool and rest overnight, we headed home and returned to Elena's bright and early the next morning, ready to see the next steps. She started by draining the corn and rinsing it in fresh water. She showed us how to rub handfuls of kernels with our fingers to get any remaining pieces of skin off. Once the corn was clean, we walked down to the communal masa mill, or molino in the village centre, a few minutes away.

Fortunately, we were first to get to the mill because within a few minutes, there was a small line-up of women all waiting to mill their morning corn. In about 5 minutes flat, the corn was transformed into a moist pile of fragrant masa. Elena paid a small fee to the woman who runs the mill and we were on our way back, with our precious cargo.

Back at the homestead, Elena kneaded a bit more water into the masa and we got right to work rolling out little balls and pressing them into tortillas. 

After pressing, Elena showed us how to carefully place the tortilla on the hot comal (the large clay plate that sits on top of the fire). There is a certain graceful technique to it. As Elena gently pointed out after my first few messy, torn-up tortillas, you need to place them down delicately, one end first, so they don't tear or fold. 

I loved everything about this step of the process, the way the tortillas puffed up, the smell of the wood smoke mixing with the rich corn-ey aroma that makes your mouth water, the mound of warm tortillas that grew higher and higher as the little bolitas of dough became less and less. And then we tasted our first tortilla and well, probably my life will never be the same again.

Elena learned to make tortillas when she was eight years old, and has been making them pretty much every single day since. So we knew we were learning from a pro. Back when she first learned how to make tortillas, there were no mechanized mills and she used a metate (a traditional grinding stone) to mill the nixtamalized corn into masa by hand. When you consider the amount of work that goes into making a tortilla, from planting the seed to harvesting the corn, to nixtamalizing it and milling it into masa, rolling it, pressing it, then cooking it, you start to look at tortillas differently, you eat them with a bit more reverence. I asked Elena if she ever got bored or tired of making tortillas every single day and without a moment of hesitation she replied a strong no. She explained how much she enjoys this evening and morning ritual and finds pleasure in it. 

When you travel to another country, you see people going about their daily lives as an outsider, looking in. I've never gotten much satisfaction from being a tourist and staying in a hotel because there is a part of a culture that you cannot really understand unless you're invited into someone's home. There, you become a participant, not just an observer. To me, that makes all the difference in the world. So when someone invites me into their home, and especially into their kitchen, it is the greatest honour and pleasure, and no amount of sight-seeing can ever provide the richness of experience, the opportunity to exchange knowledge, culture, and friendship, and to crack open and fill up your heart and mind so deliciously.

I feel so grateful to Elena for sharing her time and wisdom with us. It was a true gift that will always stay with me. In fact, I returned home with a nagging tortilla obsession, an itch that could only be relieved by seeing if I could replicate what I had learned in the vastly different environment of my home kitchen. It's still a work in progress, but I'll share my experience of it, in case it is useful to anyone out there who wants to try. For those of you who share the obsession and have already assembled techniques and solutions for small-scale whole kernel tortilla-making at home, please do share in the comments! All feedback, tips, and thoughts are appreciated.

Makes about 2 dozen tortillas

2 pounds whole corn kernels (dry 'field corn' - not sweet corn - preferably organic)
1/4 cup pickling lime
3 quarts water

Mix the pickling lime (find it at hardware supply stores or buy it online) and water together in a large heavy-bottomed non-reactive pot (such as stainless steel, do not use aluminum). Wash off any lime that gets on your hands. Rinse the corn and add it to the limewater. Bring to a boil and then maintain a gentle simmer for about 30 minutes.  It can take more or less time than this, so check the kernels every now and then to see if the skin starts to dissolves. Lime creates a chemical reaction, so don't be surprised if the kernels change colour  Our yellow kernels get a green skin as soon as they touch the limewater. It's perfectly normal. After about 30 minutes, remove the corn from heat and allow it to cool and rest at room temperature overnight, and for up to 24 hours. 

Drain the corn and rinse it in fresh water several times, rubbing handfuls of kernel with your fingers to loosen any remaining bits of kernel skins. (Don't worry if some remain). Now you have nixtamalized corn kernels! You could use them to make a delicious pozole or you can mill them into masa.

Milling masa is the tricky part. Traditionally, this was done on a large grinding stone called a metate. Today, most Mexicans have access to a mechanized molino. I wanted to buy a metate but seeing as I could barely lift the thing, bringing it home seemed improbable. A blender or food processor isn't powerful enough to mill masa, but I had heard of using an old-school meat grinder so this is what I did. Hello tortilla noodles!

I had to run the corn through about 3 times and it was still a little chunky for my liking but the resulting tortillas were still a success, and quite pliable. I have since gotten a few tips from Facebook followers and from the amazing Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo. Steve uses a Nixtamatic grinder that he bought and had shipped from Mexico, he even made a video showing how it works. Cost is about $400. Apparently, putting the masa through a blender or food processor after it goes through the meat grinder is also an option. As is using a Victoria hand crank mill, but again, you have to put the corn through twice to get a decent masa. I found that adding a little water to the corn as it went through the grinder was useful.

Either way, once you have your masa, you need to add a bit of water, about 1/4 to 1/2 cup but this varies. The dough should not be so dry that it cracks, but should not be so wet that it sticks to your hands. Once you've got a nice working dough, you can knead it a little and then roll it into little balls, about the size of golf balls or a bit bigger, depending on what size tortilla you want. You then flatten it, either by hand, or using a tortilla press (which comes in heavy cast aluminum or wood and can easily be ordered online). Pressing between 2 sheets of thin plastic is the way to go. You gently peel back the plastic and then cook the tortilla on a hot skillet, over medium-high heat. About 1 to 2 minutes on each side. Place the hot tortillas in a clean tea towel and keep them wrapped and covered so they stay warm and develop that lovely pliability and chew.

Phew! Is anyone still reading?? This might be my most epic post yet. I could say more, but you're probably exhausted, and so am I. Though this is probably not the last you'll hear from me on the topic… Happy nixtamalizing, please share feedback in the comments!