Polenta may not sound so exciting, but when made with love, it can be one of the most delicious and satisfying dishes you’ve had in some time. When the exotic foreign mystery grain of maize came to Europe via the Columbian Exchange, Europeans treated it like they did every other grain. They ground it and cooked it into porridge, adding their own local ingredients like dairy products. Today, this creamy and cheesy cornmeal porridge is still a favorite staple of Italian, especially northern Italian, cuisine.
A little while after, tomatoes followed to the old world, and though not considered edible at first, gradually evolved into items of culinary interest, onward to a destiny of being a beloved ingredient across the continent today. Salsa Pomodoro just means tomato sauce, but being the original Italian word for tomatoes, it hints that the first of these american fruits to arrive in Europe may have been yellow, and not red.
I’m still using some red tomatoes here because they look better with Polenta, but I’m also using some yellow ones to honor this original appearance. Though the original preparation was a simple but tasty dish of raw tomatoes with olive oil, cooking into sauce must soon have followed. But this is not your every day tomato sauce. Here, onions, mushrooms, a little anchovy, all make for a very rustic, meaty concoction, an acidic umami bomb that is not blended, packed with fresh herbs and resulting in a sauce that is simultaneously deep, bright, chunky and yet saucy, a full of flavor to counterpoint the rich polenta.
For millions of years, the two main hemispheres of planet earth were separated by an impassible ocean. North/South America and Eurasia/Africa, two divergent ecosystems, food chains, and human civilizations. . . Then one day in 1492, a guy named Columbus passed that impassible ocean, and began the momentous and tumultuous process of bringing the Old World and the New World back together, into one.
Human civilization and the ecosystems of earth itself would never be the same.
Unlike many ancient foods we recreate here, tortillas survive as a popular staple to this day, beyond their birth place and all around the world. Sure, there are other foods of the ancient world that are still part of modern diets, unspecific generalities like”soup” or “bread”. But corn tortillas, made of nothing but nixtamalified maíz, salt and water and cooked in seconds on a hot griddle, come down to us as is.
Tortillas were of course a staple of all the famous societies of Ancient Mexico, including the Olmec, the Maya, and the Aztecs. Both wealthy and poor people ate them regularly across history. Only tamales surpass them as the aboriginal food of Mesoamerica.
Then, as is still the case now, you don’t need more than a little salsa to top it off. This was usually some kind of pure chili paste, but avocados could be involved as well. For generations, Mesoamericans rightly associated tomatoes with nightshade but wrongly believed that tomatoes were poisonous. Eventually though, they caught on, and must have incorporated them into their “tacos”.
There’s nothing quite like a hot, spicy spoonful of posole. This tamalified corn and chili pepper soup, a classic Mexican comfort food, has deeply ancient origins, maybe even as far back as the invention of agriculture in Mesoamerica, when the barely edible grass teosinte was miraculously domesticated into maíz.
The original posole was more like a corn porridge than the modern soup. Grains of maíz were soaked in a lime solution, then cooked into hominy. The mash was then left to ferment into a kind of sourdough, to make a tangy gruel that was filling and had a long shelf life. Nutritionally sound, flavored with anything (but most often chilis), this was the standard breakfast in many ancient Mesoamerican cultures, for both rich and poor.
This recipe is a sort of combination of that ancient sourdough porridge, and a modern posole. Tamalified corn is left to ferment just a bit before being cooked through and turned into soup. While your average Mesoamerican commoner had to make do with corn and chilis alone for the base flavor, wealthy elites would have had access to some wild meats like deer or turkey, so we’re using the latter to make this rich man’s posole. Continue reading “Red Posole with Turkey”
Of all the food discoveries made across the ancient world, few are more impressive than the domestication and then nixtamlization of maize (corn) in the lands that would one day be called Mexico and Central America.
Mesoamerica is one of just three places where urban civilization evolved from scratch. Come listen, and be amazed how it happened.
We’re leaving the Peruvian coasts and traveling upwards. Inland to the east, the land immediately rises into the Andes Mountains, where a more diverse array of crops could be grown, among them avocados and chili peppers. Travel even higher, and you encounter the pseudo-grains, most prolifically quinoa, which was grown together with maize in the same field.
So I put all those ingredients in a salad. This quinoa and corn was actually purchased in Cusco, Peru.
To accompany the Mesoamerican section of episode 3 of the History of Food, we’re making authentic ancient tamales in the earth oven, just like would have been done in pre-urban Mexico and Guatemala.
These tamales are a little plain, and lack the fat and leavening agents that help make modern tamales so delicious. We’re making ours with only the ingredients the ancient Mesoamericans had, that is with corn, lime, and water.
But that’s okay, we’ve got some other authentic ingredients to help the flavor along. Black beans for filling, and chili sauce for garnish, and roasted squash as a side are going to give us flavor and depth, even if the tamale itself is bare bones.
Sweetcorn or Popcorn won’t work. You need plain field corn for this, which in some areas can be hard to come by. You can find it in many Mexican markets, almost any tortilleria, or if you’re truly lucky, a farmer.
For the tamales:
400g Plain Field corn (NOT sweet or popcorn)
6g Cal (pickling lime)
5 cups water
Dried corn husks for wrapping the tamales
For the Black bean filling:
3/4 cup dry black beans 5 cups water 1 fresh chile 1 medium onion
For the Chili sauce: 6-7 fresh chiles Seeds from 1 squash or pumpkin water