I remember the first time I tasted blue corn in New Mexico. I didn’t realize what was about to happen when I placed an order for cheese enchiladas. A plate arrived at the table, and at first all I noticed was a sea of bright red sauce and the earthy, intoxicating smell of chile wafting up at me. I took the first bite, then using my fork moved some of the sauce to the side, revealing a flash of blue. It was unlike any tortilla I had tasted before — nutty, rich, a little sweet and the tortilla almost fell apart in my mouth, somehow managing to be both rich and delicate at the same time.
But blue corn is more than a cob covered in striking hues of purple, gray or blackish-blue kernels. It has been a sacred food among Indigenous Americans for centuries, including the Hopi, Navajo and Pueblo along the Rio Grande. It’s a staple used to make breads, tortillas, atole, popcorn, pancakes, muffins and more. And here is why cooking for my family in New Mexico is unlike anything I have experienced before: Food is not just food here. It is as alive as the lavender plant in my yard just starting to sprout green stems.
When I was a child, I could feel that food had some energy I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I could see it in people’s faces gathered around the table for family meals. There was something present that wasn’t about us. It was about the ones we loved who were gone and the ones coming in the future we couldn’t even imagine yet. It was about love and gratitude, and sometimes respect and peace would show up, too. This inexplicable magic is why I chose to go into cooking, but it remained clouded in an air of mystery until New Mexico became my home.
There are teachers all around here. From the vast and breathtaking landscape, to the river when it’s dry and when it’s full, to the chile season in late summer. Chefs Lois Ellen Frank and Walter Whitewater have taught me so much over the past year, thanks to their virtual cooking classes where their approach to food is generous, expansive and resonates deeply with respect for all living things and the earth.
This is a simple recipe that I hope will become a favorite easy and special breakfast at your house. I use olive oil in the batter because I find it adds more moisture than butter. And I love the crispy edges that develop by cooking the pancakes with a tiny drizzle of olive oil in the pan. If you don’t have buttermilk, you can combine milk with the juice of a lemon and let it sit for a few minutes. This acid reacts with the baking powder, resulting in fluffy pancakes.
Blue corn pancakes with blueberry syrup
Makes: around 10 pancakes;
total time: 30 minutes
For the pancakes:
1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
1 cup blue corn flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
pinch of salt
11/4 cups buttermilk
2 large eggs
¼ cup olive oil, plus extra for cooking
For the syrup:
1 cup real maple syrup
2 cups fresh blueberries
Preparation: Preheat the oven to 175 degrees and place a sheet tray on the middle rack for keeping pancakes warm as you make them.
Make the syrup: In a medium saucepan, combine the maple syrup and blueberries and bring to a simmer. Cook over low heat for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and reserve until ready to use. (This can be made ahead of time, stored in the refrigerator and warmed up before serving.)
Place a griddle or cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium heat. Have olive oil nearby for drizzling a little on the griddle when cooking.
In a large bowl, whisk together the all-purpose four, blue corn flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Make a well (empty space) in the center by pushing the flour mixture to the sides of the bowl. To the well, add the buttermilk, eggs and olive oil. Stir with a wooden spoon until combined.
Drizzle a little bit of olive oil in the heated pan and ladle or pour in the batter, leaving enough space between each pancake so they can expand a bit. Cook on both sides until golden brown and transfer to the sheet tray in the oven to keep warm until you are ready to serve. When you’re ready to eat, top with blueberry syrup.