Native Americans perfected the art of slow cooking. The delicacy of their clay pots demanded an equal delicacy of technique, one that kept things well under the boiling point. When we began working on this recipe, we had a tough time keeping our stovetop consistently supportive: the water alternately crept up to a boil or languished below a simmer. Unexpected evaporation required constant vigilance and fresh infusions of water. Cooking times were unpredictable. After a point...
Native Americans perfected the art of slow cooking. The delicacy of their clay pots demanded an equal delicacy of technique, one that kept things well under the boiling point. When we began working on this recipe, we had a tough time keeping our stovetop consistently supportive: the water alternately crept up to a boil or languished below a simmer. Unexpected evaporation required constant vigilance and fresh infusions of water. Cooking times were unpredictable. After a point, we went American old school and bought a slow cooker. Suddenly, everything we’d been fretting over came down to a single, simple formula: limewater and corn cooked on low heat for 5½ hours. No stirring, no liquid adjustments, no problems. With a ceramic insert and high and low heat settings, the slow cooker is a modern day clay pot, and its timer function makes it babysitter extraordinaire.
Subsequently, we’ve learned that some older slow cookers appear to have compromised thermostats and thus, longer cook times. Don’t worry: unless your slow cooker is truly geriatric—or simply broken—it will, in our experience, produce success in the end. Watch for that subtle little simmer.
Lime is caustic and should not come into prolonged contact with your skin. If you touch culinary lime in dry or liquid form, rinse the area with cold water. Rinse utensils and pots and clean the sink and counters where culinary lime has been present.
In its earliest Native American form, culinary lime (aka culinary lye and potash) was a mixture of water and wood ash in which corn was cooked to remove the clear outer cellophane-like coating of each corn kernel (that coating is called pericarp, and you’ll recognize it as the stuff that gets stuck between your teeth when you eat popcorn). Simply put, wood ash and water mixed together form potassium hydroxide, a naturally caustic chemical that makes hard proteins in the corn pericarp soluble—it literally eats the pericarp away. Today, more often than not, taking the place of the water-and-ash brew is culinary lime, a white powder purified from natural calcium deposits, that is stirred into water to make limewater.
Dried corn simmered in limewater is called “hominy” (a North American colonial frontier term) or posole or nixtamal (both Central or Native American words); the last also names the cooking process. Native Americans favored nixtamal preparation because it allowed—and still allows—dried corn to cook quickly and promoted, in their view, its digestibility and nutrition. Modern nutritional assessment of the nixtamal process confirms Native American instincts: nixtamalization makes niacin and other micronutrients in corn accessible in ways that simmering dried corn in plain water does not. Nixtamal corn is America’s first nutraceutical, and it tastes damn good.
In the American South, hominy preparation during the Great Depression came to be known as “bucket lye hominy” for the farm bucket used to prepare it: wood-fire ash was collected in a bucket, the bucket filled with rainwater, and the mixture steeped like tea. Today, a handful of talented and dedicated restaurant chefs employ similar old-time techniques, taking ash leftover from hardwood grill fires to make limewater, which they then use to make hominy and masa. The rest of us, though, use culinary lime, whose demand is preserved by stalwart home canning cooks—e.g., Southern cooks who traditionally use it to keep their pickles crisp and green. Some supermarkets still carry culinary lime—at Walmart, for instance, it is available under its Latin American name, cal. If you prefer to have culinary lime appear on your doorstep, Anson Mills offers it as well.