Friday, July 22, 2016

The most slimming tortillas in the world

It's no secret that I'm an avid food gardener.  In the last two years, I've moved from exclusively growing vegetables to growing large quantities of staple calorie crops, such as potatoes, flour corn, and long-storing winter squash.

Why do I put so much effort into growing my own food, when I could buy it easily and cheaply at the grocery store?  There are a few reasons.  First and foremost, I enjoy it.  Second, it allows me to grow the healthiest and best-tasting ingredients possible (although I think you can compose a very healthy diet from grocery store foods).  Third, it saves a bit of money.  And fourth, it gives me a window into the world of my ancestors.

The fourth point is an important one for me, and it's why I can justify making tortillas the hard way.  What's the hard way, you ask?  Well, first you plant corn.  Then you water and weed it for several months.  Then you harvest the corn, shuck it and dry it on the cob.

Painted Mountain corn from my garden.
Next, you shell the cobs to get the kernels off.  Then you boil the kernels in lime water (calcium hydroxide; "cal"), which is an ancient corn preparation method called nixtamalization.  Then you rub and wash them to get most of the bran off.  Next, you grind them laboriously in a molino (wet grain mill), passing the dough through twice to get it fine enough for tortillas.
The molino is actually a modern innovation in the grand scheme of things-- for thousands of years before it, Native Americans used a stone metate to grind corn even more laboriously.

After the dough is made, you press it into tortillas, which you cook individually in a hot pan, and voilà!  All it took was five months of intermittent manual labor.

Homemade tortillas-- easy!
I'm not writing this to discourage you from growing corn and making tortillas.  On the contrary-- I find it very satisfying.  But the point is that it takes a lot of physical work, and when we think about the leanness and health of non-industrial cultures, we have to remember that it's not just about the foods they eat.  It's also about the work they have to do to get that food into their mouths, which is usually considerable.  This fact becomes extremely obvious when you actually go through the steps of putting food on the table in the ancestral way.

A few nights ago, my wife and I ground corn for tortillas.  We ground the equivalent of four pounds of corn (dry weight), which translates to about 7,500 Calories.  That will be a substantial portion of our diet for the next week.  I estimate that in the process of turning the molino, we burned about 400 Calories between the two of us.  And we probably burned even more while growing, harvesting, shelling, and cooking these four pounds of corn.  In the end, we get more calories out of the corn than we put into it, but I would guess we expend at least 20 percent of the harvested calories during the growing and preparation process.

My homemade tortillas may therefore be among the healthiest and most slimming in the world.  For the same reason, the tortillas, bread, rice, oats, potatoes, lamb, chicken, milk, eggs, nuts, and fruit eaten by non-industrial cultures around the globe are healthier and more slimming than their grocery store equivalents.


glib said...

don't weed, Stephan, or weed minimally and just prevent seeding. It is all labor saved, and the soil benefits from it. Contrary to common beliefs, plants do collaborate for the purpose of creating a healthier soil.

Lola said...

I think the process of laboring for our food adds greatly to the enjoyment of it. We are growing painted mountain corn this year but I'm wondering if you have every dried your nixtamal and stored it for a few weeks as masa harina? It would be our ultimate "fast food" if we could have some flour ready to go.

Gretchen said...

Last summer a groundhog ate my whole garden except for tomatoes and kale, so this year I didn't bother. I've seen him/her twice, but it doesn't want to go into trap.

Brian said...

Are earwigs a problem in your corn? I'm growing corn in Seattle for the first time, and it's going pretty well but I'm now starting to see earwigs in the whorls of the stalks. I read mixed reports about whether this is an issue or not. Any opinion? Also, what do you do, if anything, to prevent pests in your harvested corn? Do you nixtamalize it all immediately? I was planning to save seed for next year and want to protect it from weevils. I've read you can freeze it but was curious what you do.


Roland Denzel said...

What a wonderful lesson of awareness. I did walk 3,217 steps to bring home my tortillas, but I think you've got me beat.

thhq said...

I have a better garden now than I've ever had. The seasonality is refreshing yet many beets or kohlrabi or blueberries can we handle coming on all at once....on top of all the baby carrots and arugula....and tomatoes and cucumbers just getting started. I freeze the excess berries and sauce the tomatoes but can't keep up with the rest of it...especially the fennel...

Mechanized transportation, restaurants and grocery stores have broken both the hunt-and-gather and neolithic-farming ways of living. I try to walk or bike to get food in order to keep the association of food with physical work. But the association with seasonality is missing, except for the garden.

Corn meal makes a good coating for deep frying oysters. I don't know whether your wet tortilla dough would work for this. I usually use dry corn meal or flour. The meal forms a crispy shell around the oyster, which steams inside like a soft boiled egg.

Paleo Phil said...

"I've worked till the sweat has had me bet" (beaten)

(An excerpt from Mcalpine's Fusiliers - a song of Irish potato-eating, beer-drinking hard laborers of recent past by Dominic Behan)

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi glib,

That's the first time I've heard that opinion!

Hi Lola,

I've never dried the masa. Might be a good way to go though, since freezing the masa doesn't seem to work in my experience. It loses its elasticity. At that point it's still fine for tamales but not tortillas. If anyone else here has successfully frozen masa I'd love to hear how to do it.

Hi Gretchen,

That's terrible! We don't have groundhogs here but I know they can be incredibly destructive. I had a deer in my yard a few weeks ago and that wasn't fun.

Hi Brian,

I think I've had earwigs in some of my PM corn, in the silk. The Seattle area is Earwig Country; I've never seen so many in my life. They're in all my vegetables but they never seem to hurt anything. They didn't damage my corn.

As far as storing/saving seed, the only thing I've had to contend with is mold. It's too humid in our area for proper seed drying at the time of harvest. So I put the whole ear (husk removed) in a dehydrator for a while on a low temp setting, then shell the kernels into plastic bags. If I'm saving seed for replanting, I leave the bag cracked a bit so the seeds can breathe.

Hi Roland,

Not everyone has the desire or ability to garden like I do, but I think working movement into things (like going to the grocery store) that used to require movement but no longer do is a good way to maintain an ancestral and healthy movement pattern.

Hi thhq,

An overabundance of home-grown vegetables. I can think of worse problems, haha.

Hi Phil,

Thanks. I have the luxury of not having to feed myself completely from the land, which turns out to be hard work. I call myself a gardener rather than a farmer because my livelihood doesn't depend on it. But I can definitely sympathize with that passage on some days.

RLL said...

There are industrial grade steel wire panels, 7 by 20 feet. They are large animal proof, and with 24 or 30 inch chicken wire on the bottom rabbit proof. They can be installed on the cheap with metal fence posts, or incorporated into high end fencing panels.

Until we moved into the city we had our enclosed area in which no deer, rabbits, or other varmints were allowed (enforced if necessary) The rest of the 8 acres they could eat whatever they wanted.

glib said...

that is modern soil science, plants collaborate through mycorrhizal networks, and whatever keeps the soil shaded and the nutrients cycling helps. See numerous youtube videos by NRCS (the USA soil science research institution) scientists, particularly Ray Archuleta. If you want the practicalities, I like presentations by farmer Gabe Brown.

but I also got confirmation from italian and rumenian neighbors. Both grandmas in their 80s stated that weeds were traditionally tolerated to keep the soil cool and alive. I do something similar by planting mixed beds and underplanting tomatoes with clover. Call them simultaneous, volunteer cover crops. They improve nutrition ultimately.

dirtev said...

weeds are vegetables!! my ancestors would even keep a seperate garden .. a wild garden. just in case if the weeds ran out in the normal garden they could have more. yum!!

glib said...

keep in mind that when weeding one is trying to do something against nature. no one ever thrived on that principle. plant your own weeds (fertilizer or edible) and watch your level of frustration go down.

jewiuqas said...

Appetizing photos stimulating my salivary glands. I have long been planning to master the preparation of tortillas. There are some difficulties however. First thing, where to get nixtamalized corn flour. In America it is a kind of local staple inherited from the Indians and you may find it even at grocery stores, I reckon. In the EU lime is not allowed as food ingredient, consequently no food grade lime is commercially available, and nixtamalized corn is completely unknown. Do you think there is any difference between food grade lime and the white stuff used by bricklayers and in some rural areas for whitewashing walls? Would it do me any harm if I used whitewash for nixtamalization? The best thing perhaps would be to use wood ash, like the Indians, but that only adds to the difficulties. Where to burn the wood if you live in a flat, what kind of wood is the best? And so on…
If I get right from your post, you fry your tortillas in a frying pan. What kind of fat do you use? Do you use a tortilla press for shaping the tortillas? I apologize for asking you about these details, I know this is not a site for exchanging recipes, but on the other hand you will agree with me that most wisdom (at least in nutrition science) boils down to some practical know-how.

Galina L. said...

When we bought our house here in Florida at 2000, I tried to create a productive garden, planted fruit tries, blueberries and created a vegetable garden. Unfortunately, we found gardening in a very warm climate to be too challenging due to extremely active pests and fast mineralisation of soil. A Florida soil is infested with nematode. After the realization that a gardening in Florida would require a very aggressive pest control, we dropped the idea. Not to mention horrible water bills even with dripping irrigation. Squirrels eat almost all nectarines and all peaches,fortunately citruses, blueberries, pomegranates and figs produce in my backyard. Timucian Indians who used to live here consumed mostly oysters and other creatures who thrived in brackish water swamps, but also wild pecans and they knew how to make acorns eatable. Sometimes I wonder why we have much less deer than people in temperate climate. It is unheard of that a deer damage somebodies garden. I suspect the reason - most plants here contain fragrant oils and other natural pesticides which also deter deer.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the post! Will have to try this out!

Anonymous said...

Love this article Brian! Thanks so much for sharing! Now all we need to do is fry those delicious looking tortillas in lard and we have a serious ancestral meal. Thanks again for sharing, I am inspired to grow corn next year!

Unknown said...

Will definitely prepare the tortillas and check whether they can really make me slimmer.

Paul said...

Only someone who has planted, tended, harvested, and prepared their own food can understand the satisfaction. We enjoy looking at our table and seeing most of the things there came off our own property.

If you need the exercise, then ignore the rest of this. If not, check out this video about "Back to Eden" gardening:

I'm in Arkansas, and the hot dry weather and weeds usually beat me down about mid-July. From that point on the garden is an abandoned mess. However, I now garden without ever tilling. I only weed a little by raking over the weeds and they willingly come up (these are fed to the pigs). And best of all, I never water except when transplanting, and then only until they "settle in".

It really does work, and you can sell your tiller. All you'll need (besides a mountain of wood chips) is a garden rake, and your wife's flower planting hand trowel.

Best of luck, and I really enjoy your nutritional insights.


KathyG said...

Your corn is beautiful!

Goodleitz said...

Can I just go to the gym 4-5x/week and hit the farmer's market on the weekends? I have no problem with cooking. I'm just not on your level.