By A.H. Avouris
Brooklyn has been on a real nose-to-tail kick recently. Previously anatomically-ignorant urbanites are suddenly finding new meaning in trotters and tripe, lovingly rereading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s instructions for the barbecuing of pigs tails (according to the New York Times, Brooklyn is the new De Smet). Marlow & Daughters, that bastion of über-sustainability, has started making handbags from the cured skins left over from their house-butchered cows. A friend of mine, known to have an addiction to frozen pizza, even rejected her farmers market chicken last week, after discovering that it was delivered sans feet. The horror!
It helps to have a Depression-era mentality when dealing with kitchen scraps; it also helps to have a large freezer. The vegetarian version of the nose-to-tail ethos is somewhat less gruesome than the carnivorous, as those blessed with gardens can compost, and those of us without can keep carrot peelings, leek tops and onion ends in quart bags in the freezer. Roughly once a month I pull out the unattractive remainders and simmer them down, making weeks’ worth of stock from the rejects of my chopping block.
Sadly, not everything can be turned into stock, and some vegetables (artichokes, corn) have enough natural packaging to make a Lunchable blush. Save Wilder-esque dollmaking, there’s not much that I can think of to do with corn husks. Then there’s the problem of what to do with the corn itself. By mid-summer I’ve already steamed the ears and drenched them with butter and salt à l’Américaine, grilled and sprinkled them with chili, cheese and lime à la Red Hook Ballfields, and thrown the raw the kernels into Soup aux Remnants from the Crisper Tray.
Inevitably by August I start to avoid corn, even when it’s 50 cents an ear at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket, even when I know that I’ll miss it come winter. Then last week I remembered the deliciousness that is humitas, and loaded my bike with as many ears as I could carry: because humitas are as nose-to-tail as it gets when it comes to vegetables.
Like a fresh version of the tamale, the South American humita is a custard-like mixture of ground corn kernels, packed in its own husks and steamed on top of stripped cobs, sweet and sometimes spicy, often made with quesillo or queso fresco. I prefer to make them without cheese, as I don’t think they need anything more than a bit of onion, some butter, some fresh basil and a jalapeño to bring out the corn’s natural sweetness. Admittedly, you’re still left with the cobs and steamed husks at the end, but using these in the preparation of the humitas eliminates the need for steamer racks and parchment paper, and lends the dish a certain Campfire Girls legitimacy that I appreciate (not to mention the extra flavor that the husks and cobs impart). Sometimes a dish is more than the sum of its parts – even when all of those parts are used.
Husk-to-Cob Sweet Corn Humitas
Makes about twelve
· 4 ears sweet corn
· 2 T butter
· 1 small onion, diced
· ½ to 1 jalapeño, seeded (optional)
· 2 t salt
· ¼ t ground black pepper
· 1/3 cup milk
· 2 t fresh basil, chopped finely
Remove the husks from the corn, retaining all but the outermost leaves. Try to keep the leaves as whole as possible, as you will be using these to wrap the filling. Remove and discard the silk from the cobs.
With a serrated knife, cut the kernels from the cobs, cutting as close to the cob as possible. Reserve the cobs, and cut these down (if necessary) to fit in a single layer across the bottom of a large stock pot.
Heat the butter over medium-high heat and add the onion (and jalapeños if using), sautéing 2-3 min until soft but not browned. Add the salt and pepper. Remove from the heat.
Set aside ½ cup of the corn kernels. Add the remainder of the corn kernels to a blender or food processor, along with the onion mixture and the milk. Pulse until the mixture is nearly smooth, roughly the texture of oatmeal. Spoon the mixture into a bowl and add the whole corn kernels and basil and mix. The mixture should be thick, but not runny.
Take two of the reserved husks and lay them vertically on your counter, overlapping them slightly. Place 2 T of the filling toward the center of the husks, and fold the outer edges in, creating a long tube. Fold the upper edge down, towards you, and the bottom edge up, as if you are wrapping a package. Tear a thin bit of husk and tie around the middle, sealing the filling in the husk, or use kitchen twine. Set the packet aside and repeat with the remaining husks.
When all the filling has been used, add the left over husks to the bottom of the stock pot, and add water until the cobs are nearly submerged. Pile the humitas on top of the cobs, taking care that they do not touch the water itself. Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce it to a simmer and cover. Steam the humitas for 30 minutes, checking occasionally to make sure that there is still enough water in the pot.
After 30 minutes, carefully remove the humitas to a plate and let cool for 20 minutes. Untie and serve them in the husk with hot sauce or sugar. Watch the entire process in our slideshow, below.