I have just returned from Taos, New Mexico. I have been going there for eleven years to study with Natalie Goldberg of “Writing Down the Bones” fame, to meditate in silence, to hang out with my writer pals and to eat. I stay at Mabel Dodge Luhan House, a house built by a renegade New York heiress who married Tony Luhan from Taos Pueblo. Mabel’s house became a gathering place for writers and painters: D.H. Lawrence stayed there, and Georgia O’Keefe.
Most of us like Mabel’s for its retreat-style accommodations: no T.V.s or phones in the rooms. If we didn’t come there for Natalie, we might come there for the food — once you have tasted New Mexican green chilies there is no going back: it is said that eating green chilies produces an endorphin rush like a runner’s high without the exertion. Because of the climate and soil conditions in the high desert, New Mexican chilies taste different than the ones we grow here in California. The classic New Mexican chile pepper is a long, green pepper, similar in shape to an Anaheim chile, but more piquant. You see people roasting them in metal roasters with a rotating drum but you can roast them in your oven or char them over a gas burner. Roasted and peeled, they can be frozen for use outside of chile season.
The best thing I had to eat this trip did not come from Mabel’s kitchen though: my first night in town some of us went to dinner at The Love Apple, a restaurant that serves food made with local, seasonal ingredients, their sources listed on a blackboard on the patio. I ate some complex and intriguing tacos of chicken cooked in a dark mole with a slightly cooked red cabbage slaw and green chile crema — they were so good I told my friend Saundra “I could skip the retreat and just come here every night and eat tacos”– but the most wonderful dish was a plate of gluten-free blue and yellow corn muffins served with chokecherry butter and lime-basil butter. I rarely make composed butters, but I may re-think that decision.
I do not restrict gluten and usually make corn muffins with cornmeal and flour, but these muffins, without flour, were light in texture — I don’t know how they did it, but I plan to ask if I can ferret out who baked them (I’ll write a fan letter). Blue corn is more finely ground than yellow cornmeal, has a lighter texture and a higher protein content. You can buy blue corn from Arrowhead Mills if you want to try it — that’s what they have at the grocery store in Taos — but the yellow corn muffins had the same light texture.
My mother is gone, gallivanting with hikers up north, so I am cooking for myself again. My friend Carol scored a big bag of New Mexican chilies in Taos and kindly gave me eight of them. Last night I roasted three of them in the oven at 400 degrees, along with a large red bell pepper, seeded and cut in half. For lunch today I scrambled two eggs with the roasted peppers, quick-roasting a green-skinned tomato that had seen better days — I cut off the brown spots, removed the core and threw it in an oven in which I was baking experimental gluten-free corn muffins (I have been unable to reach anyone at The Love Apple and commence begging for their recipe).
I invented my own recipe for wheat-free corn muffins by poking around on the internet, searching for “gluten-free corn muffins.” When that turned up things I didn’t want, such as muffin mixes, I typed a question into Google about substitutes for wheat flour. I had to eliminate proposals about xanthan gum as a binder because I cook from what is in the house and we don’t have any xanthan gum. We have rice flour and masa harina and cornmeal and … cornstarch! When I saw cornstarch I started thinking about reuniting various parts of the corn plant — I could use corn oil as the main fat with a little butter for flavor. I could use cornstarch for wheat flour.
I brought out our old Betty Crocker picture cookbook, the most-used reference volume in our house, turned to quick breads and reviewed the cornbread recipes. Cornbread generates controversy here: Mom grew up on Southern cornbread — she likes sour cornbread made with buttermilk and bacon grease and just a teaspoon of sugar. I like what she calls “corn cake,” which is lighter, sweeter, often made with sweet milk and butter. Starting from the “Kentucky Corn Cake” recipe, I greased a muffin tin with vegetable shortening and then added a tiny dot of butter in each cup for flavor. I measured out a cup and a quarter of cornmeal and a quarter cup of cornstarch. I used one tablespoon of evaporated cane juice and one of white sugar. I used three tablespoons of corn oil instead of shortening and added about a tablespoon of soft butter for richness and flavor. Then I followed the recipe as written, except for reducing the oven temperature from a horrendous 450 degrees to 400.
While my corn muffins baked I roasted my tomato, beat two eggs and chopped my roasted bell pepper and chilies. I skinned them, but ate the removed skins while I was cooking (tough, but tasty). I put a little olive oil and a smidgen of butter into a hot skillet over medium heat, added the peppers, poured in the eggs and cooked the mixture until browned. I added my hot roasted tomato, breaking it up with a spatula and turned off the heat, put a couple of corn muffins on my plate and sat to eat. The first bite reminded me why I like seasonal food: the California red bell pepper and its spicy New Mexican cousins got along beautifully, mingling heat and sweetness with a little acid from the tomato. The corn muffins were slightly flatter than I wanted, but they were a beautiful yellow with browned tops, and I must have liked them because I ate three with lunch! I might experiment with adding another quarter cup of cornstarch and reducing the cornmeal to one cup. If I ever get the muffin recipe from The Love Apple, I’ll post it for you.
Gluten-Free Corn Muffins
Preheat oven to 400.
Grease a 12-cup muffin tin with vegetable shortening. Add a tiny dot of butter to each muffin cup.
Into a small mixing bowl, crack 1 egg.
Add 1 cup milk, plus 2 Tbsp additional milk and 3 Tbsp corn oil, plus 1 Tbsp butter (I melted it in the microwave).
In a larger bowl, combine 1 and 1/4 cups cornmeal, 1/4 cup cornstarch, 2 Tbsp sugar, 1 Tbsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt. Whisk together (I didn’t sift the cornstarch, but you might want to — less whisking that way).
Put muffin tin in hot oven to heat while you stir the wet ingredients into the dry just to combine.
Carefully remove hot muffin tin from oven and pour batter into muffin cups. This step gives you crusty brown outsides to the muffins as the batter hits the hot fat. Return muffin tin to oven and bake for 15 minutes.
Tangential story: on the plane home from Albuquerque, I slipped into a middle seat. After we were in the air the young woman in the window seat took out a glazed brown paper box. opened it up, and started to eat kale. No lie.
Painting Note: For more information on “California-New Mexico Lunch Date” or any other original painting, please contact me here.