Humitas, Ecuadorian-style: preparing ‘little steamed things’ yields big payoff in food and fun
By Viktoria Vidali
Editor’s note: Viktoria Vidali has been a piano teacher, publisher, TV and documentary producer, photographer, and executive director of an environmental and educational nonprofit organization. Her first children’s book, Francisco and Gabriel’s Blue Moon Adventure, a magical tale of two brothers, is available on Amazon. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area , she’s now a resident of Vilcabamba.
Poking my head inside her Vilcabamba tienda, I called out in broken Spanish, “Orfa, when you next prepare humitas, please call me so I can watch you make them.” She had recently brought up to our apartment a plate of humitas, which we devoured muy rápidamente.
“No problema,” she assured me.
Being the sweet person she is, a few days later she scheduled a humita cooking lesson for Sunday afternoon. Right on time, she appeared at our door, with her son Diego carrying a mesh bag full of corn on the cob (choclos), a big, layered, cooking pot (olla de tamalera), a manual food mill, and a wooden stool. This was serious business.
We all got to work separating the husks from the ears, then filling a big container with corn
kernels, leaving in a little of the silk that she told us was “good for digestion.”
Next Diego secured the food mill to the wooden stool and placed a large bowl next to the grinder. We each took turns filling the mill cup with kernels, adding a couple of red onions along the way, and grinding the corn … not for the faint of heart. We were quickly grateful (pun intended!) to Diego for doing most of the heavy work.
Once the kernels were ground into a liquid meal, Orfa added butter, salt, baking powder, and eggs; she also grated in a chunk of cheese (she uses queso fresco). While she was doing this, our downstairs neighbor Lera, who was also curious about learning, took precise notes.
Meanwhile, having cleaned and dried the corn husks, we were now ready to assemble the humitas.
By then, the water in the olla de tamalera had come to a boil.
We placed our humita packages in two layers inside the enormous pot, topped off with its enormous lid. Steaming (humitas literally means “little steamed things”) would take 30 minutes, so we checked the clock.
Time sped by as we cleaned up. Everything not used, and I mean everything, was separated for recycling: Ofra’s horses would be happy with the corn leftovers; her chickens with the onion peels; her garden compost with the egg shells. And let’s not forget to make una taza de café con molido perfecto (“a cup of perfect Ecuadorian drip coffee”) while we wait.
Once Orfa gave us the go-ahead, we served ourselves up a generous portion of this savory dish, laughing and talking around the table as we complimented La Reina de la Cocina (the Queen of the Kitchen) on her clear instructions and traditional, family, finger-lickin-good recipe.
Feeling disappointed that you missed out on the lesson? No hay problema! Lera put together the recipe for all of you to try.
And just a hint: it’s a lot more fun when everyone joins in the process. Buen provecho!
- Start with approximately 15 large ears of corn (unshucked). Take a sharp medium-to-large knife and forcefully strike the bottom of each ear in a circular motion to cut the covering corn leaves, which will be used to steam the humitas in later.
- Gently unroll the corn leaves and put usable ones (soft and clean) in a pile for later use.
- Remove whole corn kernels with fingers (if you’re an experienced Ecuadorian) or with a sharp knife and put in a large bowl.
- Put large pot (olla de tomalera) with approximately 2 inches of water over burner on high heat.
- Grind corn into a large bowl using a manual or electric food grinder.
- Grind two small (or more if you wish) red onions into the ground corn mixture.
- Whip two whole eggs and 250 grams (1 stick) of soft butter together; then add to ground corn mixture.
- Grate 250 grams of cheese into mixture and add salt to taste.
- Add 2 heaping teaspoons of baking powder (polvo para hornear) to mixture and blend well.
- Scoop corn mixture into cleaned, dried, corn leaves on the left sides. Roll leaves with corn mixture inward about halfway, then fold up bottom of corn leaf and cover with remaining leaf on the right side. Place folded down side on a plate or pan. Continue filling and rolling corn mixture into leaves until you’ve used it all.
- Place filled leaves onto “shelves” inside steamer pan (above the water level) and steam for 30 minutes.
Yields approximately 30 humitas.