Pujol is one of our all-time favorite restaurants. Chef Enrique Olivera is one of the most humble people we have ever met, and Criollo is the embodiment of his soul. We were overjoyed to experience a one-on-one culinary class at Criollo in Oaxaca.
As with everything in Mexican cooking, it all starts with corn. First the corn is left to dry on the cob. Then is harvested and let to dry under the sun. After 3 days baking, the grains are removed.
How to Nixtamalize corn
The nixtamalli, as it was originally named, originated with the Maya and Aztec civilizations. The Nixtamalization process is an alkali process utilizing slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) or ash (potassium hydroxide) to create an alkaline solution. This alkalinity helps the dissolution of hemicellulose, the major glue-like component of the maize cell walls. The process loosens the hulls from the kernels, and softens the maize. Some of the corn oil is also broken down into emulsifying agents (monoglycerides and diglycerides).
The divalent calcium in the lime acts as a cross-linking agent for protein and polysaccharide acidic side chains. As a result of these chemical changes the “masa” is able to be formed into a workable dough. Beneficial byproducts include increased in flavor and nutrition; as the nixtamlized corn helps control microbial activity through pH balancing.
Nixtamalization is key to a healthy society. Non-Nixtamalizdd corn contains free niacin . Which is why nutrition is prevalent in corn based cultures that do not Nixtamalize.
The first step is to take the cal rocks (calcium hydroxide) and dissolve them in water. This is quite an exciting chemical effect. As the cal hydrates, it becomes effervescent and hot! You can dip a finger in the water and feel the temperature rising.
1. Wash the corn thoroughly, transfer to a bowl with 4 to 5 times the volume of water.
While stirring, add cal solution until acquiring a translucent color color, similar to horchata. If the water looks like milk, it has too much cal.
Cook for 30 minutes to 3 hours at 80–100°C (176–212°F) until the kernals are al-dente. The best way to know is by cutting the kernel in half and check if there is a thin white line in the center.
2. Once the right amount of cal water is added, the corn will change color
Once the corn is cooked, take it off the flame and let steep 7–24 hours.
5. Rinse corn several times, until you are secure that the lime solution and kernel components have been removed.
To break down the corn in pre-colombian times, a Metate (milling stone) was used. We used this ancient tool in our culinary class at Criollo. This requires slowly adding water in order to ease the grinding and create the Masa. Now, traditionally prepared corn is processed in a stone mill. While the mega-producers will use machinery.
Making The Tamal
To make the tamale mix we flavor the masa with different ingredients. 3 Traditional additives are mole, fried beans, and reduced tomatoes. In the culinary class at Criollo, we learned all three.
The tamales can be wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaves.
If using corn husks, soak them in hot water for 10 minutes and then dry them. For the banana leaves, warm them over a grill. This will give them the pliability needed.
Once the wrappers are ready, spoon a portion in the center and top it with cheese or anything you want, then wrap and steam until cooked.
Cooking in a Comal
The comal is a round griddle with a smooth cooking surface. It is traditionally made from clay and the name is modernized from the Aztec Nahuatl word comalli.
Comals can be purchased at most markets in Oaxaca; and learning to cook with one was one of the highlights of our culinary class at Criollo.
With each use, curing the comal is essential. First heat it for about fifteen minutes, then brush the surface to remove any dust, and then brush the comal with the cal (calcium hydroxide) solution. Amazingly, this will make it a nonstick surface – indigenous teflon! We were even able to fry eggs on it!
Salsa is magic that joins everything together. Where we can enjoy the width and breadth of flavors of the Mexican chilis. Making a traditional salsa takes a bit of time, and you will savor every minute of prep!
On the Comal, cook the tomatoes, garlic, onion, and fresh chilie. Once charred, peel the burned skins and compost. Then mash the ingredients in the molcajete (mortar) starting with the onions and followed by the garlic and chilies (at this time dry, chilies can be added).
Take your time mashing. Do not rush it. Add the ingredients slowly and really mash them to pulp. The more time you spend on this; the better the final product. It is a delicate dance of desire vs. patience!
We thank the chefs for delivering a most wonderful culinary class at Criollo, Oaxaca! If you are looking for a cooking class in Mexico; this is without a doubt the best one you could possibly take.