Drying staples is a way to preserve the harvest and has been done, presumably, since the beginning of time. Come autumn, at just about the moment that I think I cannot possibly water one more plant or can one more thing, frost is at the doorstep. I gather in baskets the remaining produce and carry it to the still-warm kitchen. There will be peppers. And there will be corn that I purposely left too long on the stalk.
The corn came in a humble seed package at the farmer’s market. Aztec blue corn. I love crowing Indian corn and usually it is for popcorn, but this one is specifically for, essentially, growing blue corn meal. I pulled the husks over their heads, removed most of the silk, and hung them up to dry on a hook in the kitchen.
If you have been following me for any number of years y’all know that my heart belongs to New Mexico. The terroir is so familiar to me that I can identify a New Mexican wine or chile in a blind taste test. My friend brought me back two large ristras from Taos, New Mexico to adorn our front porch when we first moved in.
I learned that the winds out here are fierce in the spring and Mother Nature likes to trim trees and clear out debris (like lawn chairs and stuff). She got a hold of my ristras and shook ’em like nobody’s business. Now, I have had a notoriously difficult time of growing peppers over the years. But there in my paths, window boxes, and in rogue spots of the garden amongst herbs and zucchini were thriving pepper plants that she had planted from seed. “Show off,” I muttered under my breath. I sit there tending to each seed with exact care, squinting to read the backs of seed packets, and still failing and there goes Mother Earth, flinging seeds into the barren soil seven weeks before the last frost and coming out with amazing results. I could learn a thing or two from her.
But then happy day, I am growing New Mexican chilies! It turns out that this very spot of land that I reside on is nearly exactly like the land in New Mexico. The same altitude, the same soil, the same elements of the places there I love. Not like the farmlands just east of me, nor like the dusty plains west of me. Right here, I have a little New Mexico-in-Colorado oasis.
I am getting better at growing peppers and last year I brought in quite a few. Last year was not a good growing year though. In the spring the temperatures rose to a hundred degrees and hovered there straight through till frost. The inconsistent watering didn’t help, and I got some kind of rot on the bottom of the peppers. But I still managed to save some. They sat on my cutting board on the kitchen counter up until yesterday. They had all turned a lovely, passionate red and were dry. Once chilies are dried, they lose that volatile oil that burns the heck out of your skin when you touch them, but still take care not to get the chili powder in your face or under your nails.
Chop off the very top stem and using a sharp paring knife pull out the seeds. Keep these because we are planting them in a few months!
Throw the chilies in a food processor, coffee grinder, or other grinding mechanism. I used the grain pitcher with my Vitamix. I like my chili powder nice and fine.
Normally I keep the New Mexican chile separate from the others but some of them had rotted so I didn’t have a lot. I blended the Pueblo chilies with poblanos and the red chilies from New Mexico. The taste is spectacular. Hints of tomato and earth, smoky, not too hot, and better because it was from my own garden. I sprinkle it on potatoes and everything else under the sun.
As for the corn, use your fingernail to easily dislodge each kernel, taking care not to pull too much chaff in with it. I put the seeds in a strainer with bigger holes. As you shake, blow gently on the kernels and the chaff will blow out. Place corn in blender or food processor and grind to a fine powder. That earthy, corn flavor is great. I used it in my pizza crust last night blended with regular flour. Save one ear for planting this year!
Growing, harvesting, drying, grinding, cooking with, saving seeds, planting- all these beautiful, ancient practices connect us with our ancestors and help us feel connected to the earth and our food. Soon we will be in the garden again!