Here is an idiom we’ve been hearing often in some of our favorite cooking shows and it is the term “Farm-to-Table.” That’s where the food you eat goes directly from the source to the kitchen, completely avoiding the middle, which includes cross-country transport, warehousing, etc.
I experienced the Cuenca version of this a couple of weeks ago when our friend Julia (how many of you remember her as a waitress at the iconic restaurant Windhorse Café?) invited us to her country home to learn how to make Farm-to-Table fresh humitas. Poor Markku was still suffering from a back injury so I took this on without him.
The first authentic experience is the bus trip. Her home is literally past the last stop. Get off the bus along with everybody else still in it, the bus pulls off to the parking area and the driver gets out, everybody turns uphill and starts walking. One by one, people turn off the road as we climb higher and eventually, I am the only one still walking up on a narrow road which has turned into clay. Julia’s home is third from the top and she’s surrounded by farmland and family.
After a joyous welcome and greetings, we walk through her home to the backyard and gaze at her expansive view of Cuenca over the farmland loaded with healthy corn and beans. We had helped her plant some of this a few months ago and I am stunned to see the results.
We got to work immediately. After picking a few ears of corn, we plopped ourselves down in her backyard patio, started to peel the husks off and work the kernels off the cobs. The largest husks were cleaned and saved for wrapping the humitas.
One of Julia’s brothers-in-law came to help by grinding the kernels. The metal grinder was clamped to the edge of a picnic table. The fresh-off-the-cob kernels were dumped into the upper funnel, the strong and patient brother-in-law put his entire body weight into working the grinder, the wet cornmeal came out into a pan next to the grinder, and the corn juice poured out of the grinder into a bucket on the floor (a nice treat for the dogs later).
The juicy cornmeal was then taken inside for us women to start preparing the humitas. Julia added a couple of eggs, sugar, salt and baking powder to the meal as her little nieces stirred it to a creamy/custardy consistency.
Then the assembly began. Plop a spoonful of the meal onto a piece of husk. Spread it lengthwise and add a little seasoned cheese. Fold one side in, then the bottom, then the other side. Squeeze upward toward the opening until you see a little bit of meal and it’s done — onward to the next humita.
The pan of raw humitas was then taken outside to steam over a fire just off the patio. The bottom of the cast iron kettle had some water and layers of corn cobs we just undressed earlier in the day. The humitas were carefully stacked over the cobs, a lid placed on top, and Grandma stayed to tend the fire while her adorable nieces and I played Hide-and-Seek in the cornfield.
When the humitas were ready, the family came and sat everywhere, enjoying their humitas wherever there was space for a seat. It was delicious.
The consistency was like firm grits but creamier. Fresh corn and a bit of sugar made the humita lightly sweet which was offset by the salty, seasoned queso. After eating, the husks were tossed into the compost pile, ready to be worked back into the soil for the next planting. Literally a Farm-to-Table meal.
I’ve eaten many humitas here in Cuenca but I’m afraid I had no idea how much work actually went into this simple dish.
Many thanks to Julia and her family for this wonderful experience and allowing me to share it with the readers of CuencaHighLife.
Are any readers out there making this at home?