You’ve probably come across the term before, but you might not be entirely sure what nixtamalization is or how it works. Well, it’s actually a pretty cool ancient method for preparing maize (that’s dried corn, by the way), and it dates back thousands of years to Mesoamerica, which is the region covering parts of Central and Southern Mexico and Central America.
So, here’s the scoop on nixtamalization. Way back around 1200 BC to 1500 AD, folks figured out this technique that turns dry, almost inedible corn kernels into a key ingredient. Nixtamalization is the secret sauce behind making that soft, aromatic masa. That’s corn dough, and it’s used to whip up iconic foods like tortillas and tamales. This stuff has been feeding entire civilizations, from the Aztecs to the Mayans, and it’s still a food staple in many Latin American diets today.
In a nutshell, nixtamalization is like a corn spa day. It involves cooking and soaking maize in water mixed with an alkaline solution. Traditionally, they used wood ash or food-grade powdered limestone (known as calcium hydroxide or Cal in Spanish) for this mix. This magical solution helps unlock the nutrients in maize and makes those kernels as soft as a pillow.
The word “nixtamal” (pronounced neex tah mal) comes from the Náhuatl language, with “nextli” meaning “ashes” and “tamalli” meaning “cooked corn dough”. Nixtamalization is the process that makes corn easier to digest and boosts its nutritional value.
Besides making maize products smell, taste, and look better, nixtamalization packs a nutritional punch, with vitamin B3, niacin, calcium, and iron coming into the mix. Without this process, we’d just have plain ol’ corn flour or cornmeal.
Foods made from nixtamalized corn are more flexible, have better consistency, cook up like a breeze, and have that irresistible texture and nutty aroma we all adore.
Now, here’s a fun fact. Just like the mystery behind sourdough bread, no one really knows exactly how people stumbled upon this maize-cooking magic. It was probably a mix of accidents and lots of tasty experiments.
After taming corn, ancient Mesoamericans likely boiled those kernels, and the ashes from their cooking fires mingled with the maize, causing a color-changing chemical reaction that sparked curiosity and culinary innovation.
Similarly, the use of calcium hydroxide probably began when people ground maize on limestone found in riverbeds. They watched how nature’s elements interacted with maize and noticed it worked wonders for their bodies.
Compared to regular maize, nixtamalized corn was a game-changer – easier to work with, tastier, and more stamina-inducing. Thanks to nixtamalization, corn became the star crop in Mesoamerica, feeding people for millennia and still making us all happy today.
There’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for nixtamalization because not all corn is created equal. In Mexico alone, there are 59 species of heirloom corn, each with its unique color, nutrients, hardness levels, and starch content. Harder kernels need more calcium hydroxide, and cooking times vary, ranging from about 12 to 14 hours for some varieties.
To keep these heirloom varieties alive, it’s crucial to work closely with the growers. They’re the experts at creating top-notch masa, and they carry on the tradition of nixtamalization, passing it down to future generations.
Now, let’s shift gears from the technical stuff and dive into the mouthwatering world of food. When you think of a quesadilla, you might picture cheese between two pre-cooked flour tortillas – a perfectly acceptable version of this Mexican snack. But there’s another style, often sold as street food in Mexico. It starts with an uncooked corn tortilla filled with cheese and other goodies, then gets fried until it’s golden brown. The result? A crunchy, flavorful delight that pairs oh-so-well with melted cheese.
In Mexico City, folks generally believe you can stuff a quesadilla with almost anything, and yes, some even skip the cheese! But folks from other parts of the country might argue that a quesadilla without cheese isn’t really a quesadilla because they think the name comes from “queso” (cheese). Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.
For the quesadilla:
- 1 cup of corn masa for tortillas
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1 cup warm water
- Enough oil for frying
- 1 cup of melty cheese (Manchego, asadero, chihuahua or if you’re outside Mexico, mozzarella or swiss)
- 1 ½ cups of lettuce, shredded
- 1/2 cup of cotija cheese, crumbled (if you’re outside Mexico, Feta cheese can be a substitute)
- Your favorite salsa (bonus recipe below)
- 3/4 cup of crema (if you’re outside Mexico, sour cream can substitute)
- In a bowl, combine corn flour and salt. Gradually add warm water while mixing until a dough begins to form. Knead dough until it has a soft and moist texture. The masa dough should not stick to the bowl or hands. Form 6 equal-sized dough balls with the masa. Cover with a damp towel while you make the rest of the balls. This won’t need resting as there is no gluten to develop.
- Place a dough ball between two sheets of plastic or parchment paper. Using a round plate, flatten the dough by pressing down as evenly as possible. The thinner the better but make sure it won’t break or tear when stuffed. This might take a couple of tries.
- Top half of the tortilla with 3 tablespoons of melting cheese. Fold the quesadilla and seal around the edges by pinching the dough shut. Repeat this step for the remaining masa dough balls. Place stuffed quesadillas onto a tray or plate lined with parchment paper until ready to fry.
- Preheat oil for frying in a large cast iron skillet or heavy bottom pot over medium heat for 5 to 7 minutes or until oil reaches 350°F.
- You can fry two quesadillas at a time if your skillet has enough room for 1 to 2 minutes on each side until the quesadillas are golden and crispy. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.
- Serve quesadillas with lettuce, cotija cheese, salsa and sour cream. Enjoy! Now, if you would want to add something besides cheese, be my guest. It’s a delicious way to use leftovers! Almost anything can become fried quesadilla stuffing.
For the salsa:
- 1 pound plum (Roma) tomatoes
- 1 half medium white onion
- 2 serrano chiles
- 8 sprigs of cilantro
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Chop the ingredients before blending. Precise chopping isn’t important. You just need smaller pieces so that it is easier to blend without adding water.
- Put all the ingredients in your blender. Adding the tomatoes first makes it much easier to blend. Do not add water unless it won’t blend and then only add 2 tablespoons of water at a time. Most of the time you won’t have to add any; too much water makes the salsa runny. You want a full-bodied slightly chunky tomato salsa.
- The easiest way to get it started is to pulse the blender 5 or 6 times until the blades start going. Then blend for about 30 to 45 seconds until it is fully blended but still has a coarse texture. The salsa sticks to food better when it has a little texture.
- Once the salsa is blended, you are going to fry it in 2 tablespoons of hot cooking oil. To fry it you just pour it into the hot oil. This step is important to develop the flavor of the salsa and helps bind it. Don’t skip it, even if you are looking to make your diet healthier. This is a crucial step!
- Bring it to a boil and then reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 15 minutes until it has taken on a deep red color and has more body. Looks good, doesn’t it? The tomatoes need to be very ripe for the salsa to take on a deep red color.
- Allow your salsa to cool and then serve.
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