At Atlanta’s charming artisanal market-meets-romantic restaurant Parish Food & Goods, Chef Joe Schafer takes the Dixieland love of locally grown, sustainable ingredients one step further by turning his hardwood ash (leftover from smoking meats for his delectable charcuterie platter) into house-made lye for creamy hominy. A popular staple in both Southern and Mexican cuisines, hominy—another Native American word for corn—is the modern day term for dried corn kernels that have gone through the process of nixtamalization, wherein a grain is soaked in an alkaline solution and hulled. The result is a softer, round kernel of sweet corn.
While most chefs would turn to the ease of store-bought pickling lye—a few drops of the stuff mixed into a gallon of water produces the alkaline substance needed to shed hominy of their tough hulls—Schafer goes through a rigorous three-day process in a nod to the South’s old customs, using up leftover product in the process. “I’m kind of intrigued with ingredients and cooking techniques from the Old South,” says the Georgia-born chef, who spends his free time prepping bacon he’d one day like to sell to the public. “I like to use history and culture to inspire my food.”
For his über creamy hominy, Schafer combines that leftover ash with just enough water to produce a quicksand-like consistency. Then he lets the mixture sit for several days to develop into a 12 to 13 pH solution that will help loosen the corn hulls. While the mixture stews, Schafer soaks the dried hominy overnight, allowing the kernels to loosen. When both mixtures are ready, he simmers the hominy in “a witch’s cauldron” of ash water for several hours, taking care to keep the heat low and slow. After rinsing several times, the hulls begin to rub off and what’s left are the white kernels. “You have those nice, big, tender pieces of corn after they are cooked,” he says.
But even after four days, the process isn’t complete. To finish off his creamy dish, Schafer cooks the hulled hominy in a thyme-infused cream. (Unlike the boiled, sometimes chewy texture of posole, Schafer’s hominy has a toothsome bite and pop of flavor.) Served alongside a number of other Southern favorites—a supple North Carolina Speckled Sea Trout, smoky-salty house pancetta, and a bright pickled-peanut salad—this is a wonderfully cozy and absolutely bright dish (and perfectly apropos of the South. The process may be lengthy, but making lye for hominy is worth it for this chef, and we quite agree.
Step 1: Using a tammy or sieve, sift 1 gallon of hardwood ashes.
Step 2: Moisten the ashes with water to a wet-sand consistency.
Step 3: Cover the ash-water mixture tightly and ferment for 2 to 3 days at room temperature.
Step 4: One day before the ash-water mixture is ready, soak the dried corn in cold water overnight.
Step 5: The next day, place the moistened ashes in a large pot. Add the corn and enough cool water to cover the corn by about three inches, whisking thoroughly to break up the ashes.
Step 6: Bring the water to a simmer and cook until the corn is tender (when testing the corn for doneness, rinse the kernels very, very well before tasting). Once the corn is tender and the hulls are loosened (about two and a half to three hours), place the pot in the sink and run cold water over the corn until the water runs clean, rubbing the skins off the corn with your hands.
Step 7: Place the corn in cool water again and skim off any skins that float to the top. Strain and store the hominy in an airtight container until service (this can be done one to three days before use).
For the Creamed Hominy:
Step 1: In a saucepot, render the pancetta slightly. Add the onion and thyme, and sweat until the onions are translucent.
Step 2: Add the hominy to the pan, stirring to combine.
Step 3: Add the cream to the pan and adjust the heat to medium-low. Cook the hominy in the cream till very tender (the cream should no longer pool in the bottom of the pot when stirred).
Step 4: Season the hominy with salt and pepper and serve immediately.