Corn Reborn

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Three Sisters Nixtamal brings back old-school tortilla-making


“What’s done in here is how it’s been done for thousands of years,” says Pedro Ferbel-Azcárate, co-owner of the Portland-based artisan tortilla and masa company, Three Sisters Nixtamal. Standing over a huge vat of organic heirloom corn submerged in water at the Three Sisters Nixtamal facility in Southeast Portland, he’s making corn tortillas the old-fashioned way — the really old-fashioned way.

Three Sisters Nixtamal makes its tortillas using the crucial nixtamalization process, which gives the tortillas their heady heirloom corn flavor. Without it, you end up with the rather flavorless corn disks proliferating on grocery shelves. It’s the difference between a beer and a microbrew, grocery-store white bread and bread made with whole grains.

Nixtamalization is an ancient method of processing dry corn by soaking it in an alkaline solution of limestone, which makes three naturally occurring nutrients in corn — B-complex vitamins, niacin, and the amino acid tryptophan — available to human digestion. It also prepares the corn to be ground into masa, or corn dough, by partially gelatinizing the starches; this helps the corn stick together despite being gluten-free.

2_cornCorn tortillas have been made like this in southwest North America and northern Central America — the birthplace of corn — for thousands of years. When colonialists came to the New World, they quickly adopted the cultivation of corn, but they processed it like wheat — to their detriment. Eating non-nixtamalized corn led to pellagra epidemics caused by niacin deficiency (an estimated 100,000 people living in the American South alone died from pellagra in the early 1900s). While many tortilla companies use some nixtamal corn, few go to the lengths of the Three Sisters.

At the Three Sisters Nixtamal factory, nixtamalization is done in large vats filled with dried corn, alkaline lime, and water, heated on open gas flames. From time to time, workers stir the mixture, smelling it with every churn. It’s the scent of pure organic heirloom corn. “There’s no book to this process,” says Pedro. “The corn tells you when it’s ready.”

The other two owners of Three Sisters, Wendy Downing and Adriana Azcárate-Ferbel, agree. “We learned the basics from my aunt in San Luis Potosi,” says Adriana, who’s married to Pedro and hails from Mexico City, “but really, we learned it through practice as we started our company.”

When the nixtamal is ready, it is soaked overnight, then rinsed and wet-ground in a volcanic stone mill to make masa. The masa is salted, pressed, cut into tortilla disks, grilled, cooled, and packaged. The result is incredibly fresh, organic corn tortillas in yellow, white, and blue versions, as well as prepared masa for making your own tortillas at home. Find them in grocers across Oregon, as well as in many Portland restaurants, from Blossoming Lotus to Stella Taco.

You can get limited-run and experimental tortillas from Three Sisters at farmers markets, too – like tortilla verde, which is flavored with spinach, cilantro, and jalapeno; or a new experiment Three Sisters is very excited about: Northwest-grown heirloom corn tortillas made with Dakota Black and Abenaki Flint corn from Lonesome Whistle Farm in Junction City, Oregon.

“You can taste the difference of a 100% fresh nixtamal tortilla,” says Adriana. “To me, it brings me home.”

Three Sisters Favorite Guajillo Beans Filling for Tacos

by Three Sisters Nixtamal

Serves: 6–8 | Cooking time: 90 minutes

Guajillo Adobo:

2 ounces (12 to 15 dried) chile guajillo, wiped clean with a damp cloth, stemmed, split open, and seeded
5 peppercorns
3 cloves (optional)
2 cloves of garlic
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons agave syrup
pinch of ground cumin
2/3 cup water

For Beans Filling:

1 pound dried beans cooked until tender (black, pinto, or heirloom variety available from farmers markets or online through Rancho Gordo)
3 tablespoons olive oil or organic sunflower oil
3⁄4 cup onion, diced
1⁄2 cup Three Sisters Favorite Guajillo Adobo (recipe above)
2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano

Guajillo Adobe Heat a comal or cast-iron skillet to medium heat. Toast the chilies on both sides, a few at a time, making sure they do not burn. Toast the peppercorns and the cloves, if you are using them. Soak the chilies in water until softened, about 30 minutes.

Drain the chiles, discarding the water, and put the chilies and all of the other ingredients into the blender and blend until smooth. If you are not using a Vitamix-like blender, you may want to strain the paste for a smooth texture. Use the adobo immediately, or store it in the refrigerator up to two weeks, or longer in the freezer.

Guajillo Beans Filling Heat the oil in a shallow pot over medium-low heat, then add the onion and cook until golden-brown. Stir frequently.

Add the Three Sisters Favorite Guajillo Adobo and the oregano, and cook for three more minutes.

Add the beans and their broth. Simmer on low heat for 30 minutes, adding water if needed.

To reach your desired texture, mash some of the mixture with the back of a spoon, or puree all or some in a blender.

Once the beans are ready, prepare tacos as you normally do, topping them with cheese, scallions, sliced avocado, your favorite salsa, chili oil and other ingredients.

Cook’s Note: This basic recipe is a great marinade for whatever filling you want in your taco, whether chicken, meat or tofu, or as well as a magical way to transform an ordinary pot of beans into the most delicious frijoles ever.

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