Mashed up jumbo-sized corn kernels form the basis for humitas, a simple but versatile dish that was in use before the Spaniards arrived. The summer choclo (corn) grown here is not the same as the sweet stuff found in the north. This type has a lower water content perfect for transforming into a dough-like raw material. In Chile humitas are fairly large and typically served with an ensalada chilena – tomato wedges, finely sliced white onion and fresh cilantro or basil with a touch of olive oil. If you live anywhere near a Mexican or Central American restaurant or in one of those countries you’ve probably had tamales, which are similar but smaller, and frequently filled with meat. In Venezuela they are called hallacas and also have a meat filling with black olives and spices and are often served as a Christmas dish.
I recently asked Marcela’s mom Blanca to show me how to make these inexpensive, comforting taste-tastic treats. After giving away half of them I still had so many left I ate them every day for a week with a different type of salad, spicy tomato sauce or balsamic and arugula and never got bored.
It may not be easy to find the right type of corn in every country, but in summertime around these parts this is how it’s done:
- Chopped fresh basil. A good handful per dozen corn ears depending on how much you like it. I think it’s hard to add too much basil. These giant bunches at La Vega came to 60 cents! Un-be-fucking-lievable.
- Chilean style uncooked corn ears. I’d say get at least two dozen to make it worth your time (The humitas can be frozen). Slice the thick ends off and save the husks. Scrape the kernels from the husk.
- White onion: one small one per dozen ears. Chop and rinse so they keep the flavor without being overpowering.
- Sauté the onion until brown in vegetable oil. If you want them to caramelize a bit more, toss in a teaspoon of white sugar.
- Add the basil, but don’t cook the hell out of it.
- Separately, chop the corn in a hand blender or shake maker until smooth. Don’t add milk or water or any liquid, or the dough won’t stay together.
- Pour the onion/basil mixture into the corn and add a bit of salt. The mixture will have an almost spongy, light feel to it that may make you want to dive into a vat of it.
- Select two pieces of clean cornhusks that are equivalent in size and on the larger side. Lay one wide end over the other pieces wide end with their respective tips pointing away from each other.
- Ladle in the corn mixture. Fold the horizontal sides in, followed by the points.
- Tie both lateral directions with twine and drop into a vat of boiling water.
- Cook for about half an hour.
Serve with Chilean salad or really any salad or sauce you can come up with. I think of these almost like rice, potatoes or pasta – a great staple food that really are excellent and good on the nutrition front. There are many variations by cook and country, such as adding a touch of condensed milk or cinnamon, or other vegetables. Experiment! If you don’t want to make up a whole batch and you’re in Santiago in the summertime, find nearly any supermarket downtown and you’ll also find a street vendor with homemade humitas standing outside. I recommend them most definitely.