The word mush is no where near as appealing of a name as this deceptively simple dish should have. Soft cloud of nutritionally dense gastronomic chemistry softness is more like it, and would not at all be an exaggeration.
Well prepared it is a soft nutritionally available form of corn. Poorly prepared it is wallpaper paste. I better prepare it properly then.
Blue corn mush is particular to Zuni and Navajo tribes, and the particular blueness of it is as much part due to color of the grain but to the hardwood ash mixed in with it during the cooking process. Ash is used in a much larger amount, made into a tea, strained and added to the cooking pot. Bags of juniper ash can be purchased in areas where the dish is commonly eaten, though can be easily made by burning and sifting the drying fine strands of juniper, not the actual branches.
Parching dried corn and grinding into a flour rather than going through the more widely known nixtamalización – cooking and soaking whole dried corn in an alkaline solution, cleaning and then grinding into a dough – seems to me to be a function of weather and geography much more than culture. The nixtamalización process is lengthy, a full day perhaps depended on the age of the corn, an requires a good deal of water. It isn’t a surprise the process originates from the humid tropical and subtropical regions of Mesoamerica, with large pre-Columbian cities and more readily available water.
This process however, is more typical of arid lands, what is now northern Mexico and the southwestern US, areas where the native peoples were semi-nomadic, settling into different camps depending on the season. As long as a making a fire was possible, corn could be parched and ground, and done so relatively quickly. The ground corn meal becomes more compact than the grain itself, easier to store and to travel with, and has the added advantage of being even more well suited for long term storage than a straight dry corn: little to no moisture content remains in the grain, making it less likely to go rancid.
There’s more than way way to parch dry corn of course. In my home state of Sonora, popping corn is dry parched, ground into a fine (though static laden flour) and made into a pinole. For the most part it is flint or dent corn that would be used for parching, – all the better to avoid the projectiles. A quick lesson on corn varieties: flint corn is a hard corn with a smoother top to each grain, while dent corn has well, a dent at the top. Genius, no?
Besides dry parching in a pot or pan, parching in ash, or rather, dying embers, is ideal. Whole cobs of dried corn could be thrown into the embers, toasted as desired, and ground as needed. Removing the ash isn’t necessary since the ash is the key to this dish.
All of this leads me to this: nixtamalización and parched ash cooked corn are both wonders of gastronomic chemistry. I am by far not the only person to ever state this, but let me break it down.
Wet corn processing is usually done with calcium hydroxide, slacked limestone, though ash is also used, varying by region. Parching is done with hardwood ash, cedar, juniper, mesquite are most common, again regional. Both are alkaline in nature the primary function of which is to break down proteins, softening the grain which both reduces cooking time and creates a silkier mush.
Ash, calcium carbonate and calcium hydroxide have one big thing in common: calcium. It also contains magnesium, potassium, iron and zinc in smaller quantities. Think of every natural gardening book or article you’ve ever read. Almost every one of them will say to add the ashes from your charcoal grill to your soil. Though if you use one with an accelerant I would say please don’t. You shouldn’t grill with it and you don’t want to add it to your plants. Mesquite charcoal. Get yourself some mesquite charcoal and a charcoal chimney. Trust me on this.
The cooking of corn in these alkali provided a large boost of calcium to corn based diets, and when combined with the niacin rich squashes and protein laden legumes of the arid lands, it is a rather complete nutrition.
Corn, and many other grains are also full of mycotoxins. Huitlacoche, corn smut, grows from one of these many fungi present in corn, though it is one of the least harmful. Others can cause liver damage and cancer. Fungi present in wheat and rye can lead to hallucinations and a very painful death, in the form of ergot. Cooking the corn in an alkali solution neutralizes the mycotoxins, making it safe to eat.
This isn’t to romanticize the diet of pre-Columbian peoples. Living in the harsh desert environment could also be full of food scarcity, even with the advanced irrigation based agriculture of the Sonoran desert people such as the Huhugam.
The ash can be made with any cypress or juniper tree, being careful it is free of chemicals. For this dish I made it with cuttings from one of my still small mesquite trees. Young spring branches are best, before they have too much resin in them. Be sure they are completely dry so they burn well, and allow to burn until completely white. Then sift, and let the culinary chemistry occur.
The parched cornmeal used for this comes from Ramona Farms, a small farm producing heritage Pima crops in the desert between Tucson and Phoenix.
Parched Corn Mush
As is mentioned in the live cooking class video, constant stirring is necessary while making the mush, both to prevent sticking and to prevent molten lava splatter.
To reheat any leftover mush, break it up into small clumps, and add water or milk and heat over a gentle heat or in the microwave.
- 4 cups water
- 1 tsp sifted ash
- 1 cup parched cornmeal
- 1/2 tsp salt
Bring 4 cups water to a boil. Whisk in ashes until dissolved, then follow with parched cornmeal.
Continue to whisk continuously and slowly while cooking at a gentle simmer. If it thickens too much, add a bit of hot water to the pot.
When finished, the mush should be soft and lacking the bite of the grain. It can be finished with a dab of butter and some cheese as desired.
Editorial Note, 4/11/2020: The live cooking class video was part of a fundraiser for Tucson Botanical Gardens, to help, even in a small amount to supplement their loss of income due to necessary closure during the Covid-19 pandemic. The empanada recipe cooked in the video can be found here.