Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Prints and Cards Now Available!

A small selection of my artwork is now available at Fine Arts America. FAA is an on-line marketplace for selling, purchasing and creating fire art prints, greeting cards and original works of art. Prints start at $18.50. Check out my FAA gallery for more information!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Palomitas de Colores: Colorful Fruity Popcorn

So...A recipe for popcorn in a Mexican food blog? Of course! Corn is a quintessential Mexican food, with lots of symbolic meanings, check the previous post. Back in grammar school my friend's mother made colorful popcorn like this. The first time I saw it in his lunchbox I found the colors fascinating! My friend's mom used a syrup made out of hard candy (similar to jolly ranchers) to color the popcorn. This version uses less sugar and fresh fruit to flavor it, and it uses stovetop popped popcorn. It is crunchy, toasty and better than the microwave kinds, that are full of hydrogenated fats. Let's get cooking! You'll need the following ingredients:

  • Half a cup of Maiz Palomero, divided into eights of a cup (or any quality brand of popping corn)
  • Vegetable oil, two tablespoons
  • Salt, just a pinch (optional, it just brings out the flavor)
  • A sauce pan with a lid (it should hold at least 3 quarts)

Add the oil to the pan, and heat on high, together with one fat kernel of popcorn to test. Once the kernel pops, you are ready to add one eight of a cup of popcorn to the pan, and a pinch of salt. Shake it a bit so it divides evenly into a single layer. Cover and let it rest for about 15 seconds away from the heat - then place it over the flame once again. The popcorn should start popping, go ahead and hold on to the lid and shake the pan vigorously over the stove to prevent burning. Once the popcorn is almost all popped you won't hear rattling. Open the pan halfway so the steam escapes, that way you'll have crunchy toasty popcorn. Place the popcorn in an oven so it stays warm and crunchy, before covering it with the flavored syrup.

  • One cup of flavoring agent. In this case I used fresh blue berries, raspberries, vanilla, fresh lime and lemon.
  • One cup of organic, evaporated cane juice sugar or piloncillo (Note: using piloncillo will result in darker colored popcorn).
  • Three quarters of a cup of water
  • A drop or two of vegetable coloring (optional).

Fruit syrup is created in a similar manner as the one used for this Agua Fresca, but it uses less water. Combine the water and the fruit of your choice in a blender, strain in a fine sieve. Combine the sugar and the flavored water in a sauce pan and bring to a boil. You can add a couple of drops of food coloring at this point, if you are using it. Boil and stir until the sugar has thickened. This is the tricky part! If your caramel is too tick, you'll end up with a messy sugary clump. If the syrup is too thin, it will shrivel your popcorn. You'll know your syrup is the right consistency if you pick it up with a spoon and it falls back to the pot in the shape of a ribbon. Put the warm popcorn in a bowl and cover with the syrup evenly, using a wooden spatula to carefully coat it. The correct ratio of popcorn to caramel is about half a cup of syrup to three cups of popcorn, depending on taste. Place the finished product on a sheet of wax paper and let dry.

If you are making different flavored popcorn I recommend you have your fruit flavor based prepared ahead of time, before making the syrup. That way your warm popcorn doesn't have to sit in the oven for a long time. Once the popcorn is dry and cool to the touch, it is ready. Put it in a pretty bowl and serve. Oh wait...It doesn't matter where you'll put it, it usually gets eaten right the way! Enjoy.

Doves and Hail: Secret Meanings of Popcorn

During the Mexican conquest, Spanish historian Fray Bernardino de Sahagun described a curious dance performed by young women on the Mexica month of Toxcatl:

"....Young maidens dance shaven, with arms and legs covered in red feathers, wearing capillejos composed of toasted corn called momochitli, that was a grain resembling a very white flower. These capillejos were made in the same manner as the ones created out of flowers, [worn] by young Castillian maidens during the month of May..."

Those capillejos (a type of bonnet) mentioned by Sahagun were actually made out of popcorn. To the Mexica ("Aztecs"), corn was an important grain that held important socio-religious significance, much like chia and amaranth, that I have mentioned on previous posts. Corn was central to the native culture of the Americas, but only Zea Mays Averta had the ability to pop when heated.

Tlaloc, God of Rain, from the Codex Rios

In other writings, Sahagun mentions that momochitli was also offered to Tlaloc, the Rain God, due to its resemblance to hail, that was also attributed to this deity. To this day, some Mexicans say "Tlaloc must be angry" every time it hails. Other writings by Sahagun allude that popcorn was an important offering due to its resemblance to stars - it was a divine reminder of the constellations, that helped the ancient Americans develop the calendar.

Indigenous communities like the Mazahua in central Mexico create simple offerings for religious ceremonies composed of strands made out of popcorn, small biscuits and marshmallows. Thanks to El Bable, you can see the following image showing a Mazahua altar adorned with fruit and popcorn garlands. Mazahua women also create long popcorn garlands that are strung around crosses and images of saints, at times completely covering them. Some times a piece of bread is hung in the middle of the popcorn strand, symbolic of the holy spirit.

The word for popcorn in Mexico is "palomitas" - a word that literally means "little doves", maybe because the popped grain resembles tiny white doves. The name could also be an attempt to scyncretize religious beliefs associated with popcorn. An offering to Tlaloc, the god of rain could be sincretized as an offering to the holy spirit, also symbolized as a white dove in Catholic belief. According to Genesis 8:11, a dove released by Noah flew back to the ark carrying back an olive branch after the flood, a sign of peace and divine reconciliation.

Noah releasing a dove.
Mosaic, Basilica de San Marco, Venice Italy

It is impossible to decipher the exact meaning and associations hidden behind a certain food, but popcorn offers a few clues. Popcorn could be seen as one of the basic miracles of nature: Life trapped inside a seed, just waiting to pop out. It is energy flying in all directions, in the shape of tiny white doves. It sounds like furious hail that destroys crops, both a gift and a warning from divine forces. It could also be a representation of the stars above us - a reminder that we are small among the planets, like a grain of corn. Such are the mysteries of food mythology and syncretism, and some things to ponder next time you to to the movies..! Enjoy the following recipe for Colorful Popcorn.