Making Your Own Chili Powder and Cornmeal (from seed to plant to pantry)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

The Great Corn Experiment Results (and enemies of the root cellar)

Drum roll, please!  The results are in for the Great Corn Experiment! (click title to see original post)

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About a month after drying the corn, I pulled off the kernels with the side of a knife from one of the cobs and placed them in the air popper.  It took a long time but some of the kernels turned into tiny popcorn.  Most of the kernels had too much moisture content and after awhile I decided not to set the popcorn maker on fire.  The popcorn that did pop was nutty, satisfying, delicious.  I was excited to see what would happen when all the corn was sufficiently dried.

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I began to notice lines of corn kernels missing.  I was worried that the kernels were be so dry they are falling off the cob through the slats of the open container that held them and into the oblivion of the root cellar.  I moved the crate on top of the box of onions so that the kernels could fall into the box.

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Remember the cartoons where, I believe it was Mickey Mouse, would eat corn like a typewriter?  One row. Ding!  Next row.  Ding!  It looked like Mickey Mouse was in the root cellar.  I did not think that mice would eat such perfect rows before moving to the next row.  Then Eliza Doolittle caught a mouse.

This year the mouse population has exploded.  We have (surprisingly) not had many mice before now here.  First I noticed they had taken up residence in the garage and the chicken coop.  Then the front porch near the bird feeders.

At least one out of the eight cats considers herself a mouser.  Eliza is a beautiful lynx point Siamese, calico mix.  She is the youngest (5 years old) and quite lithe.  She went running by with a mouse and Shyanne hot on her heels.  It really doesn’t help me to have even one mouser when I have St. Francis living over here.  Shyanne rescued the mouse from Eliza’s grasp.  “It’s a baby!” she cooed.  She walked it around the house in her hands comforting and loving it.  Then put it outside.  Where I have no doubts it found it’s way back towards the root cellar!

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We didn’t see any mouse droppings so we brought the corn into the kitchen and decided last night test it out.  The mice had only eaten the heirloom sweet(ish) corn and had left the old varieties of Indian corn alone.  I used a lightly wet paper towel and wiped down one of the cobs and tried a knife to release the kernels.  They began to fly everywhere upon release.  Emily came and twisted one of the cobs.  Tons of beautiful multi-colored kernels showered down.  Then we smelled it.

If you have ever lived in a house that mice love, you will know just what I am talking about.  Mouse urine.  Pungent.  Doug couldn’t smell it.  But it was enough for Emily and I to abandon our project.  The chickens will love their new treat.

I know that the kernels would have made fulfilling, nutty morsels of popcorn and delicious hand ground cornmeal, but we will have to test this theory at the end of this year.

Let’s see $9 for the heirloom seeds.  Approximately four and a half months of daily watering, tending, weeding, and harvesting.  Shucking, drying, waiting.  All gone.

Being a farmer guarantees a certain amount of crop loss, however.  Sometimes while in storage!