December 2011

PANTRY: Maize

John Sedlar, modern master of southwestern cuisine, pays homage to the simple, time-tested grain by SARAH TAYLOR / photographs by PEDEN+MUNK

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When we think of maize, we think of humans’ ability to pull sustenance from soil. Both ancient and symbolic, the grain was cultivated and consumed by the Olmec and Maya in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, before conquistadors and colonists learned of its miracles and planted the hearty crop across the globe, where it continues to be ubiquitous.

Now, John Rivera Sedlar—named Esquire’s 2011 chef of the year—gives maize its due at his L.A. restaurants Rivera and Playa. The most pared-down preparation, which truly glorifies the ingredient, is in the form of tortillas florales, made from fresh masa and served all chewy and warm with a generous serving of what Sedlar’s menus call Indian butter (guacamole).

But know this: These are no run-of-the-press tortillas. Sedlar’s flair for visual artistry on the plate, as well as his occasional flights of culinary whimsy, are undeniable, for as the name suggests, vibrant organic edible flowers are delicately pressed into each cake before it is cooked.

When last we checked in with Sedlar, he relayed that he was “in Mexico teaching Mexican chefs how to make tortillas.” So, when he assures us this is “the best corn tortilla in the world,” we tend to believe.

FRESH MAIZE CAKES FLORALES

1 1/4 pounds dried corn
1 1/2 tbsp slaked lime (calcium hydroxide, called cal in Latin markets)
4 quarts water for cooking the corn, plus 3/4 cup for mixing the masa
1 tbsp sea salt
Organic edible flower petals—pansies, roses, nasturtiums or squash blossoms (sold in fresh-herbs section)
Olive oil

Sort through corn kernels to remove debris, rinse under cool water and drain. Place corn in large, deep saucepan and add water and slaked lime. Stir gently until lime dissolves. Bring to simmer over medium then reduce heat to maintain simmer, stirring occasionally until corn is tender but slightly firm, 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Take care not to overcook. Remove from heat and drain in colander. Rinse and lightly rub handfuls of corn under cold running water until skins are removed. Transfer skinned kernels—now known as nixtamal—to a bowl and refrigerate overnight.

To make masa, pass nixtamal through grinder attachment of a stand mixer 2 or 3 times, until it reaches a soft, dough-like consistency that still feels coarse-textured. Put ground nixtamal in large bowl and add sea salt and 3/4 cup water. With clean hands, mix ingredients until fully blended, forming ball of soft dough that holds together.

With fingertips, pull off 2 generous tablespoons to form a sphere slightly smaller than a ping-pong ball. Roll dough between palms until ball is perfectly smooth and even. Place ball on baking tray lined with parchment paper. Repeat with remaining masa. Cover completed balls with damp kitchen towel.

Cut 26 6-inch squares of parchment paper. Set aside. Cut plastic bag from produce section of supermarket into 2 9-inch squares. Place one piece of plastic on bottom plate of tortilla press. Place masa ball in center. Top with second piece of plastic.

Gently close tortilla press to form a still-thick cake that is not quite the final diameter. Open press and peel off top plastic. With a few flower petals, form an attractive design on top of maize cake. Replace top sheet of plastic and gently close press to seal in petals and spread maize cake to final diameter of 5 to 5 1/2 inches. Place on top of sheet of parchment paper and top with another sheet of parchment. Repeat process with remaining balls of masa, petals and parchment paper to make a stack of maize cakes.

Heat well-seasoned, heavy cast-iron griddle or skillet over high until lightly smoking-hot. Pour olive oil on a bunched up paper towel and lightly slick griddle. Lift a maize cake with parchment paper beneath it and carefully slap it on griddle, maize side down, then carefully peel off and discard paper. Repeat with as many maize cakes as will comfortably fit at one time in pan. Cook until undersides form dark-drown blisters, then flip with spatula and repeat, about 1 1/2 minutes per side. Remove and stack tortillas inside folded napkin or kitchen towel to keep warm. Repeat with remaining cakes. Serve with salted butter or fresh guacamole. Makes about 25 tortillas.

VIDEO: See John Sedlar prepping his tortillas in the Rivera kitchen >