Today marks the autumnal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere, the day when the sun's position directly over the equator makes the hours of light and darkness equivalent. As fall approaches, the equinox is an occasion for celebrating the harvest and the abundance of good fruits and vegetables we've enjoyed throughout a long, productive summer.
We cleared the last tomatoes, squash and corn from the garden and ploughed the plot in preparation for fertilizing and re-planting next spring. The row of yellow corn (choclo) grew to an impressive height of three meters (bringing to mind Carl Sandburg's high, majestic "Laughing Corn") and yielded several bushel baskets full of fat cobs. We shared the crop with our neighbours and the Catholic nuns who run an orphanage in Rama Caida. With six remaining ears I made humitas, a traditional Latin American dish which consists of a ground corn filling wrapped and steamed in a husk.
The standard method for making humitas involves grating or grinding the corn by hand, but I like to cut the kernels off with a knife and use a food processor to speed up the work. Basil and onions are added to the corn mash which is then fried with butter until the mixture is creamy and thick. Our South American corn tends to be drier and less sweet than North American varieties, so the addition of a little milk and sugar helps to make the right consistency and improves the flavour. The filling is spooned onto the center of the boiled husk and the edges are folded in at the sides to create an envelope. A thin strip of husk is used to tie the humita securely before placing it in the steamer for 20 minutes.
There are many variations of the humita recipe, some using eggs and cheese or hot peppers. This simple version makes a delicious side dish for lunch or dinner or can be eaten with bread at breakfast. We served our humitas with ham and fresh tomato slices and paired the equinox meal with Cafayate Torrontes 2009.
Produced by Bodega Etchart in the province of Salta, this wine is rich with floral aromas, a mouth full of plum, apple, citrus and pineapple, and a smooth finish. The Torrontes grapes are harvested from 25 year old vines grown on 120 hectares of land near Cafayate. The area has a luxury wine resort, Vinas de Cafayate which offers comfortable accommodation, a gourmet restaurant and superb views of the surrounding vineyards and mountains. A bottle of Cafayate Torrontes costs 13.50 pesos at Vea supermarket.
The small sprig of rosemary that I planted last year has evolved into a shrub that's starting to take over the herb garden. Shakespeare's Hamlet comes to mind each time I walk past the spiky plant, the line where Ophelia says to Laertes: "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance, pray, love, remember..." Funny how memory work from long past school days resides permanently in the brain, though I can't recall where I left my reading glasses last night.
I picked one bunch of rosemary to add to my polenta, and another to add to the brim of my straw hat, as a natural memory aid. The Greeks encouraged students to twine the herb into their hair while studying, to improve learning. The pungent fragrance is enough to clear the head, and the pine oil flavour of rosemary lends grace to a bland staple like cornmeal.
Argentine polenta is made from a sub-tropical variety of corn called "flint" that differs from types grown in North America and Europe. It is harder, but more nutritious, with less starch and more protein content. The sun-dried kernel grinds to a finer grain, which means reduced cooking time, less stirring on the stove and a smoother, creamier end result.
My recipe is a version of the "Barefoot Contessa" Ina Garten's inspired polenta. The cornmeal is cooked on the stove for a few minutes in milk and chicken stock seasoned with rosemary, garlic and red pepper flakes. Off the stove, I stir in freshly grated parmesan cheese and then spread the thick mixture like cake batter into a pan, allow it to cool, and place it in the refrigerator. About two hours later, the chilled polenta is sliced into triangles which are lightly dusted with flour before being pan-fried in a little olive oil and butter until golden. This twice-cooked polenta is a great side dish for meat or seafood, and can be made ahead for the many potluck asados that take place during the summer.
We found a bottle of Finca Natalina Ugni and Chenin Blanc 2007 on a dusty back shelf at the local mercadito. Ugni Blanc, or Trebbiano as it is called in Italy, is a highly productive, very acidic grape grown in France for making brandy. It blends well with the Chenin to create a wine with citrus aromas, clear tropical fruit flavours and a hint of coconut. Bodega Putruele, located at the foot of the Andes in the Tullum Valley, elaborates the wine and exports it to Russia, China, the U.K, the U.S and Finland. The bodega recently underwent a 1.3 million dollar renovation, with new bottling equipment and stainless steel tanks for fermentation. This bottle was purchased for 8 pesos, and the bag of polenta was 1.57 pesos at Casa Martin in Rama Caida. And before I forget, here's a link to a wonderful poem by Billy Collins entitled "Forgetfulness." The video version is narrated by the poet himself.