Many of the chefs we visited with both in NOLA's Backyard and in Charleston are grinding their own corn for polenta and grits or to make masa for tacos and other Mexican specialties.
Chefs are intent on teasing every last drop of flavor out of ingredients. But when it comes to corn they’re downright fanatical whether they’re grinding their own grits or making masa.
By Beverly Stephen, May 17, 2016.
I hear America grinding. From the out buildings of stately Southern plantations to the basements of restaurants in Manhattan, the whirring of grist mills and stone corn grinders can be heard as chefs engage in this latest DIY project. They’re grinding corn for grits, for polenta, for masa to fashion into tortillas.
Proponents believe it’s worth the time and trouble—not to mention the expense–for both the nutritional value and the flavor profile.
“It retains the germ,” explains John McConnell, executive chef of Clif Family Winery and the Bruschetteria food truck in St. Helena, California. “In the commercial process, they will either soften the corn by steam or water and remove the bran’s outer layer. In this case you get the whole enchilada. It’s whole grain.”
Lines form for the ethereal polenta he serves at the Buschetteria. “The guests say it’s one of a kind,” he reports, but the journey is a long one. First the Floriana corn seeds are brought over from Italy and grown on the Clif family farm. Then the corn is dried and milled with a hand turned grinder. The polenta is cooked in water. “Then we add a little bit of cream after the polenta is thickened and finish it with grated fontina or with pecorino infused with black truffles.” In short order, guests were returning and “bringing friends along to taste it and share the story.”
In Louisiana, chef John Folse is grinding mostly yellow dent corn and some blue flint for grits and meal. “Grinding my own grits allows me to have more control over the product,” says Folse. “If I want my grits to be larger or finer I can do that to distinguish my product from what else is out there. Also when you grind your own grits from whole corn, the oil from the corn remains in the mixture. You lose that when you buy grits from the store. This gives it a creamier texture and higher flavor profile.” Folse buys his corn in 50 pound bags and grinds about two tons a month for use in his R’evolution Restaurants in New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi and his catering operation at White Oak Plantation in Baton Rouge where his two mills are housed. “My prize is a 1922 antique stone mill that I bought from a farmer who had been grinding grits for years in that mill handed down from his grandfather,” explains Folse who is a history buff. “But with the volume of grits I now need, I required a more efficient mill that could automate the process. My new model has multiple sifters so that I can make four different products from the same grind.”
Folse reminds us that “grits were known for centuries as ‘po’ food but now this poverty food is being raised to elegance.” He mentions some of his dishes that bring grits to this new level: “short ribs grillades and grits Creole style, BBQ Gulf shrimp and grits, Creole tomato grits…it’s not just mush to fill you up. Some other ground corn dishes include blue and yellow cornbread, hushpuppies, corn fritters and breading for fried seafood.”
At Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, Cassidee Dabney, executive chef of The Barn, grinds corn grown in their gardens.
“It’s kind of like grinding your own coffee beans in the morning. Every minute after it’s ground it loses some flavor. We grew about 20 bushels of corn this season. So it was possible to have it on the menu about every third day.”
“We have an old fashioned Wolfgang Mock grain grinder we attach to a table,” she explains. “It does about a quart of raw corn which yields about a gallon of product. We can do anything from corn flour up to coarse ground grits.” Her menus are likely to feature grits with pickled ramps or polenta with farm cheese topped with white truffles. She also serves a smoked chicken breast with a poached farm egg on grits sprinkled with crushed salted peanuts. “That’s really good. I’m not gonna lie to you.” she says. “We make fantastic cornbread too.’’
Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts is not convinced. “I don’t see a whole lot of advantage to making your own polenta or grits in house. You can’t scale enough to get oxygen,” he explains. “I challenge them on the oxidation factor. He sells his cold milled grits to some 4,000 chefs worldwide, “fresh-milling their stuff to order.” He mills two and a half days a week, following the weather to always use new crop corn and mills under a CO2 envelope so it can’t oxidize when he’s milling, and vacuum seals. Perhaps a blind taste test challenge is in order.
CORN FIELDS TO TORTILLAS
On the Mexican front, grinding corn to make fresh masa for tortillas adds yet another labor intensive dimension. In this case, you’re dealing with wet dough so there’s no question there’s an advantage to doing it on the spot.
Charleston chef Sean Brock straddles the divide between Southern and Mexican fare. At Minero, his Mexican restaurant, he gives the Charleston signature shrimp and grits a south of the border twist by making the grits out of masa and calling it a “liquid tortilla.”
Brock can be obsessive (“it’s a character flaw,” he says) and is not deterred by complexity or cost when he’s searching for the perfect ingredient. To him a perfect tortilla “tastes like sunshine.”
Manhattan’s Alex Stupak, a former pastry chef who’s now the chef/owner of a growing empire of Empellón Mexican eateries, is equally fanatical about making his own masa. He believes that once you’ve tasted a fresh tortilla nothing less will do. “A tortilla isn’t a background player,” he writes in Tacos: Recipes and Provocations. “It isn’t goddamn Muzak.”
The quest for a perfect tortilla is daunting. The beginning is sourcing dried field corn, rather than sweet corn. The next step is nixtamalizing the corn–treating it with an alkaline solution of water and calcium oxide, which is sold as pickling lime or culinary lime. Most restaurants cook it for about an hour and then let it soak overnight although each chef has his own preferences. This dissolves the pericarp, a thick hull around the corn kernels. And it makes it possible for our bodies to absorb vitamins such as niacin. Remarkably, the Aztecs and Mayas figured out nixtamalization some 3,500 years ago. When the Conquistadors took corn back to Europe they left out this vital step and as a result many of the poor who relied too heavily on corn suffered from severe vitamin deficiency diseases like pellagra.
Next one must grind the wet nixtamal into masa fine enough to make tortillas. Even Stupak admits that isn’t easy. “To do it at Empellón, we use a high voltage, five horsepower, 1,200 pound hunk of metal fitted with hand-chiseled volcanic stones. It can grind about 50 pounds of masa in five minutes,” he explains. He had the grinder custom made. He also commissioned a corn oven that forms and cooks the tortillas.
Even so his workers grind in the wee hours to make enough dough to produce an average of 1,500 tortillas daily, although there are days that require 4,000 to 5,000.
Marc Meyer, chef/owner of Rosie’s, also had a grinder custom made to fit into his typically small Manhattan basement. The output there is about 1,000 tortillas a day.
Brock has two employees making tortillas at both Minero locations every day. The labor costs are high. “When you decide to make your own tortillas, it’s insane. It costs at least ten times as much but it’s ten times more delicious too. It’s our responsibility as chefs to chase deliciousness.” So what’s his advice to any chef thinking about embarking on the tortilla process? “Be ready not to make any money!”
A similar process takes place at Cosme, the New York City sister of chef Enrique Olvera’s Mexico City flagship restaurant Pujol. Cosme buys heirloom Mexican corn in a rainbow of colors to feed its demand for 3,000 to 4,000 tortillas a day. Chef de cuisine Daniela Soto-Innes says each corn has a different taste as she shows off bags of blue, yellow, and purplish kernels in the cold walk-in. The different varieties are a bonus surprise for customers who never know what color tortillas to expect in their baskets.
Out in Sonoma county California, Karen Taylor Waikiki is also a devotee of masa made with organic dried corn stone ground daily at her El Molino restaurant for tortillas, tamales, and chips. She describes the difference between tortillas made with fresh masa and masa harina like the difference between instant and homemade mashed potatoes. Restaurant critic Patricia Unterman waxed even more poetic. “The tamales here taste like buttered fresh corn.” El Molino turns out some 5,000 tamales a day as it’s also supplying a wholesale market.
Not all Mexican restaurants are able to invest in expensive grinding equipment or the labor needed to make fresh masa. “Until I purchased an industrial corn grinder for Empellón, we didn’t make our own masa either,” Stupak admits. “We bought it from a tortilla factory and if you live in a city with a Mexican population, you can probably do the same…. And if you can’t buy fresh masa, there’s still hope, masa harina.” He compares this solution to “Folgers versus coffee made with freshly ground beans” but believes it still tops store-bought tortillas.
No matter how you make the tortillas they have the added timely advantage of being gluten-free. There’s nothing in the dough but ground corn and water.
Until recently, it was difficult for chefs to source heirloom Mexican corn. But all that changed after 2014 when Jorge Gaviria launched Masienda and began importing landrace (locally adapted open pollinated cultivars) maize from small farmers mostly in Oaxaca. He was inspired to launch the company after meeting Enrique Olvera at a G9 Chefs Summit at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Olvera convinced him that there was a market for these endangered heirloom varieties. He started with two truckloads containing less than 40 metric tons. In 2015 he imported 80 metric tons and this year he estimates he’ll bring in 400 metric tons. Could heirloom corn be the new quinoa?
With chefs like Brock and Rick Bayless, the chef who brought authentic Mexican cuisine to Chicago, on board, word will spread. Masienda is currently selling 17 colorful varieties—purple elotes, yellow chalqueno, red elotes conicos. Brock tasted through all of them as carefully as a sommelier tastes vintages. “Thinking about the subtleties of each one is a lot of fun. Once you taste the right one, it kinda hits you in the face,” he explains. White bolita is his favorite. “You really taste the grain flavor you associate with eating grits and cornbread,” he says. “And I love the incredible aroma. When you get out of the car and walk toward Minero, the smell hits your nose. It’ll knock you down.”
The learning curve is high. Brock can attest to that. “It took me six months to learn to make tortillas that I could stand behind,” he recalls. “Holy cow! It’s so much more work that we ever could imagine.” The first time he tried to make a tortilla it was a “complete disaster”—to add insult to injury it happened at his mother’s house using a corn grinder he had smuggled in from Mexico. “I went out into the yard and texted my partners. ‘Are you sure we want to open a Mexican restaurant?’ I shot them a picture of my terrible tortilla.” Who knew making tortillas could be more complicated than making croissants?
Gaviria is sympathetic. “Anybody trying to get into this has to understand how to work a mill and how to maintain the stones and clean the machine properly,” he explains as well how to obtain the perfect consistency and texture of masa and learn about the varieties of corn.
But Gaviria believes making scratch tortillas could become as common as making pasta in house is for high-end Italian restaurants. “Twenty five years ago in New York City pasta programs were rare,” he points out. “Very few restaurants were making pasta from scratch and enjoying the luxury and prestige that came with that. But fast-forward and who even thinks twice now about making pasta in house. I’m hoping the same thing happens with corn.”
He’s eager to make the corn and the process accessible to restaurants beyond the avant-garde. “We also have higher volume materials we’re sourcing to accommodate those customers who are eager to differentiate themselves but might be working with a clientele who may not want to eat a blue or red tortilla,” he explains. “Color is a factor. Some yellow varieties have so much beta-carotene they are almost orange. Not all tortillas are created equal. Some starches are lighter and you get a more aerated masa and light puffy tortillas. Others are more toothsome and stand up more to sauces.”
“Cosme was a wonderful first client because they just said give us what you find. I didn’t know what I would be able to aggregate. They wanted to play around and exemplify the potential of the Mexican landscape. Not every restaurant is able to do that.”
It helped that Olvera had already been through this laborious process at Pujol in Mexico City and wrote about it in his book Mexico from the Inside Out. He described tasting about 20 varieties of corn, nixtamalizing until he got elegant texture, buying a small metal mill “assuming it was the eighth wonder of the world but it was useless. Finally, we found a supplier with a stone mill.”
“We then tried to make our own masa. Kneaded with water, it should be soft and compact and shouldn’t stick to your hands or break and fall apart…We still keep samples of the corn at the restaurant that constituted the beginning of this story—a reminder… that we had to defend each time we… served tortillas instead of bread.”
“At Pujol, we don’t see the tortilla as a mere base for the taco, but as edible tableware, tailoring the tortillas to what we will top them with,” Olvera explains.
SAVING THE WORLD ONE KERNEL AT A TIME
These obsessive chefs have paved the way so that now the knowledge, the machinery, and the maize are more readily available.
Not only will increased demand for this corn help preserve the 59 heirloom varieties grown in Mexico and maintain the strictures against growing GMO corn, it will also help preserve the small family farms.
“Most of these families are below the international poverty line,” says Gaviria who’s currently sourcing from about 1,200 farmers. “They are subsistence growers. We only purchase their surplus after they’ve fed their families. Most of these folks are operating below capacity. Some have even sold land. They’re missing out on the commercial use. We’re trying to provide additional incentives by working with the community, using their storage facilities etc. and providing off-season work.
Brock is an enthusiastic supporter. “That’s everything,” he says, “helping small farmers.”