Last Spring, in the lovely town of Patzcuaro, in the state of Michoacan in Mexico, I had some great street food. Street food in Mexico is often a taco or something indulgent deep fried but this was an incredibly unique and healthy treat. The flavor almost haunts me! A young woman was serving atole de grano and when I heard it was basically a soup with corn and fennel, I quickly lost interest despite the queue of locals waiting for it.
My friends insisted that I try it and I'm so glad that I did. It was delicious, rich and seemingly complex. When we pressed the woman on how she made it, I missed most of the discussion but the essence was the corn and anisillo (which I assumed was fennel) were mashed in a metate and that this mashing, along with cooking in her beloved clay pot on an open flame, were what gave her dish its flavor. I was surprised to find she didn't use chicken stock and I made a mental note to experiment when I returned home.
I thought I'd play around with the idea now that corn is in season. The problem of course is that currently, American corn can be substituted with pure sugar. It's too sweet and there's no market for starchy corn, it would seem. Never the less, I pushed on, trying to make something good, inspired by this great dish.
First I cut up half an onion and four cloves of garlic and added them to a black clay chamba pot with a little olive oil and gently started to saute the vegetables. Then, I boiled the kernels of four ears of corn and 3 chopped bulbs of fennel. The fennel cooked quickly. I strained the vegetables out and reserved the boiling liquid. Then in small batches, I ground the vegetables in my molcajete.
Even though I have a large molcajete, it's easy to have the contents splash over the size so it really pays to work in small batches. The woman in Patzcuaro insisted that the metate was part of the key to good flavor and texture. A metate is a larger volcanic piece commonly used to grind nixtamalized corn for masa and a molcajete isn't the same but not having a metate, it was the next best thing in my kitchen.
I kept grinding until I had a paste. As I finished a batch, I'd add it to the onions and garlic in the clay pot, letting them fry a bit as I finished all the batches of corn and fennel.
Next, I added the reserved boiling water, which was cloudy and flavorful from the corn and fennel. I added just enough to make a soup and then stirred well. I brought the mixture to a boil and then let it simmer on low for about an hour.
The natural cornstarch in the kernels made the soup thicken, but I added a little too much of the water so I let it cook down and evaporate for another hour. After salting, the soup was ready.
To be honest, it was almost nothing like the dish the woman in Mexico had made but it was great and I wouldn't hesitate serving it to company. A very little more research revealed that anisillo isn't fennel at all but a green herb (actually one of four similar herbs used regionally, according to my Diccionario Enciclopedico de Gastronomia by Ricardo Zurita) in the Tagetes family, which would include Mexican marigold.
I'd probably make a big pot like this again. Even if I had chicken stock on hand, I wouldn't have used it. It doesn't need it. I may try and make this the next time there's a barbecue and see if cooking outdoors, on coal or wood, improves the flavor.