April 27, 2011
This is the first in a series of posts that I’ll be crossposting on my friend Mercedes’ Mexico Travel portal. I’ll be diving into Mexican food, starting with basic recipes that are general to the whole country, and then taking side trips into the wonderful and multifarious regional cuisines of Mexico; probably that will mostly be Oaxaca and Puebla, for a start. Ooo, maybe the Yucatán, too.
At my side I’ll have two of Rick Bayless’ books: his Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen, and Mexico: One Plate at a Time. I may pick up Diana Kennedy’s The Essential Cuisines of Mexico, should the need arise, but I’m given to understand that Bayless covers a lot of ground. We’ll see – his books are quite comprehensive, but in case I need something absurdly specific (and, indeed, what else is Mrs. Kennedy for?), I’ll look into picking up her very, very comprehensive tome.
Let’s get started! Staff of life. Brilliant.
Let me start off this entry on tortillas by saying that, by god, they were a lot easier to make than I thought they’d be. I just made four or five to start with, because it was the afternoon, and I had already eaten lunch with my friend Colleen, and I wasn’t actually in much of a mood to eat more than one tortilla. But, yes! Despite having seen the pertinent Good Eats episode, I was still under the illusion that making tortillas, without a tortilla press (which looks like this), would be awfully difficult.
It was not.
The process begins with masa – fresh cornmeal dough. Or, failing that, masa harina – cornmeal dough that has been dried and powdered. Maseca brand will do just fine, and it should be in pretty much any grocery store, assuming you live somewhere in the United States where there is a Latino population. There are several different kinds of dried masa – varying coarsenesses, fine masa intended for tamales, stuff like that. Make sure you just get masa harina or Maseca (which I assume is a portmanteau of the words masa and seca, which, yeah, means dried masa).
From there, it’s as simple as following (most of) the instructions on the back of the package:
for four tortillas (and really, in most situations, why would you want so few?)
1/2 cup masa harina
1/3 cup water
a pinch of salt (1/8th teaspoon)
1. Mix dry ingredients, and add the water slowly, mixing with your fingers, until it has come together into a dough. Don’t let it get too wet. It can be very slightly crumbly.
2. Form the dough into a ball; cut or divide the ball into four equal pieces.
3. Let the dough rest for a bit while you put your heaviest piece of cast-iron on the stove; heat it over medium-high heat for four or five minutes. While the pan heats, get out a piece of plastic wrap, and plop one of your masa balls on it.
4. Fold over the plastic wrap and very, very exceedingly gently roll out the tortilla – the masa in this state will not brook a whole lot of abuse, and if you’re not gentle, you might accidentally press down too hard and split the tortilla in half.
5. Peel back the plastic wrap and put the tortilla on the griddle – ignore it for about a full minute while you prep the next tortilla.
Tortillas are traditionally made on cast-iron or earthenware griddles called comales. I don’t own a comal, and, probably, you don’t either. A cast-iron skillet will do fine.
6. After the minute is up, flip the tortilla with a spatula and let it cook for another minute. It may not be the prettiest thing, but that’s okay!
You’re not looking for a whole lot of brown, really – too much cooking and it’ll be a little too well-done to fold. You just want to make it a little more opaque, a little lighter in color than it was, a little more cooked–looking.
From there, it’s not such a big deal to throw some cheese on there, top it with another freshly-made tortilla, and make a quesadilla. But, y’know what? I ate that first tortilla plain, because it was really just that good.
And, um. That’s it! That’s the Staff of Life! … Helluva lot faster than bread, I tell you what. And so easy!
Store your freshly-cooked tortillas on a plate, and cover with a kitchen towel. Stack, cover, serve with your meal.
Unless you regularly buy from a tortilleria (tortilla bakery), or eat at a taqueria that gets its tortillas from such a place, these are probably going to rank among the best tortillas you’ve ever had. There’s no question in my mind that tortillas were designed to be eaten promptly after they were made.
I probably won’t make tortillas every time I make Mexican food, as I work through this series.
But I just may.