Mexican nixtamalization finds new life in fruits and root vegetables

For thousands of years, the people of what are now Mexico and Central America soaked and cooked corn in an alkaline solution, usually water mixed with mineral quicklime, to make the grain easier to process, more nutritious and, without doubt, tastier. .

The process, called nixtamalization, is sometimes attributed to the prosperity of the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica and undoubtedly contributed to world cuisine in the form of masa – the nixtamalized corn used to make tortillas and countless other foods made from it. corn from the region. .

But now, nixtamalization has crossed borders and species and is used to process a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, giving them a firm or crispy rind while softening the inside.

“Usually you use it to change the texture of fruits and vegetables that are high in pectin,” said Carolina Bazán, chef and owner of Ambrosia and Ambrosia Bistro in Santiago, Chile. She was speaking from a distance at the Culinary Institute of America’s Worlds of Flavor conference held at her Copia center in Napa, Calif., In early November.

Bazán soaks fruits, such as apples or pears, or squash in a solution of quicklime for 30 minutes to a day, depending on the desired effect. The result is a coating on the outside that protects the flesh on the inside, so when cooked, the fruit or vegetable softens but it retains its shape. “The presentation is very pleasant and the flavor [and aroma] increase, and the nutritional value of it as well, ”she said.

With corn, nixtamalization makes vitamin B3 easier to absorb and protein easier to digest. It also makes niacin and calcium in corn bioavailable. And because quicklime is rich in calcium, the overall calcium content of masa is increased, according to food scientist Dave Arnold in an article on

Jay Murray, the chef at Ellis Square Social in Beverly, Mass., Loves nixtamizing root vegetables. “I love how you can preserve the shape of a vegetable while still giving it an intense flavor,” he said. One of his favorite root vegetables to use is salsify, which he peels, nixtamalizes and then roasts until it’s about as dark as unpeeled salsify, but the inside turns into ” a sort of mash ”, while the outside is crisp. “And you also get a bit of the calcium-lime flavor that you recognize in a tortilla,” he said.

Photo: Wild boar pozole with carrots and nixtamalized potatoes at Ellis Square Social

Formerly, he made a dish of salmon with carrots and nixtamalized salsify, crispy salmon skin and fried oysters with an emulsion of sunflower oil and argan. He also made a boar pozole – a traditional stew made from whole nixtamalized corn – but he also nixtamalized carrots and potatoes, so that they had a crisp and sweet texture contrast.

Murray actually got the idea to treat his products like this in the 2012 cookbook of Restaurant Mugaritz, one of the avant-garde restaurants of the molecular gastronomy movement of the time, in the Spanish Basque country. near San Sebastián. The book contains a recipe for nixtamalized banana tortillas.

Bazán said that the nixtamalization of fruits is a fairly common practice in Mexico. Indeed, it helped inspire a dish created by Copia Executive Chef Sayat Ozyilmaz with his wife Laura Ozyilmaz for the Worlds of Flavor conference. Sayat Ozyilmaz is from Turkey and Laura Ozyilmaz is from Mexico. They noticed while traveling together in these countries that both had fruits treated with quicklime – which is called kireç in Turkish – and with fruta cristalizada, or crystallized fruit, in Spanish.

For the Mexican version, the fruit is nixtamalized then simmered in a simple syrup. At Worlds of Flavor, Ozyilmaz soaked large diced honey squash in a solution of 15 grams of food grade calcium hydroxide per quart of water, stirring it every 10-15 minutes for about four hours.

When the skin became almost translucent, he filtered it, washed it thoroughly, and then cooked it in simple syrup over low heat for 30 to 40 minutes, until the squash expands. Then, as it cooled, it had a crispy exterior and a hollow interior which it filled with goat cheese and candied lemons and garnished with sesame seeds. “So we have this perfect cube with a surprise inside,” he said.

Ellis_Square_Social_Salmon_with_nixtamalized_carrots_and_salsify.jpegPhoto: Salmon with Nixtamalized Carrots and Salsify at Ellis Square Social

Other cultures also soak foods in alkaline solutions to change their texture. Pretzels, whose origins date back to ancient Rome, are traditionally made by soaking raw dough in a lye bath, causing the starch on the outside to seize up and brown faster while protecting the inside, keeping it softer and wetter.

Murray said Thais used lime water in their dough to make it crispier, “so we started doing that when we were serving fried chicken,” he said. The process is also ideal for making mashed potato croquettes, and if you store sliced ​​potatoes in lime water instead of plain water before frying or baking them, they end up being crispier.

“You can also do this with baking soda,” said RJ Harvey, culinary director of the Potatoes USA trade association, which has nixtamalised squash, Asian pears and, of course, potatoes.


Nixtamalized banana tortilla at Mugaritz.

In one experiment that went particularly well, he soaked red potatoes in a solution of 50 grams of calcium hydroxide per liter of water for about three hours. Then he drained them, rinsed them and allowed them to air dry for 45 to 60 minutes. Then he gently poached them in a simple syrup with vanilla and pandan with Southeast Asian herbs, then allowed them to cool and burnt the top to form a crispy coating.

“It almost became gelatinous on the inside, like a creme brulee, but the outside was quite firm, so when you pushed your spoon in you got a variety of textures,” he said. He served it over coconut syrup and topped it with crispy mung beans.

He said that the texture of the potatoes was changed quite dramatically due to the nixtamalization. Instead of crumbling like a potato that is quite dry like a red head when cooked, “it now kind of melts”, like custard. He said the process also works with beets, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiar

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