Tuesday, May 15, 2012

An Easy Staple

Ever heard this whine? "You can't find good Tex-Mex in New Orleans because there are no good tortillas here. When I lived in Austin, we used to buy tortillas from an Airstream down the corner made by a guy who had a tattoo of a tortilla on his arm." Lesson: no Airstream, no Tex-Mex.

The staples of most world cuisines are easy to make. In fact, the basic cooking of most cuisines is simple to accomplish but, may take a lifetime to master. Staples had to be easy out of necessity. An 18th century Chinese farmer didn't have a world class kitchen nor did a Mexican mother own a microwave. This is not to trivialize the importance of rice, bread, and maize, but just to say with a minimum amount of practice you can make much better corn tortillas than you can buy from any Airstream. 

Do you own a non-stick pan? A griddle you use to make pancakes for your kids? Or a cast iron pan? Have some ziploc bags? Indoor plumbing or access to potable water? Good then you are all set. You don't really need a tortilla press. All you will really need is a bag of masa harina. They sell it in grocery stores.

In a large bowl, combine 1 3/4 cups of masa harina with about a cup of water. Depending on the day, you may need more or less of either ingredient. You want a dough that is soft and looks like cookie dough. All of this is the extent of the recipe in Rick Bayless' Mexico: One Plate at a Time.

Take a gallon Ziploc bag and cut it down the sides and across the bottom. Once you have your dough, pull of a section that is about the size of a squash ball. Place dough in between two sheets of Ziploc and press down with the bottom of a heavy pot.

You can use a rolling pin (with dough still in between the plastic) if you want to make the tortilla thinner, but this is optional. It should have a vaguely circular shape. The more you practice, the better they get.

Carefully peel off one layer of plastic and drape the tortilla over the palm of your hand, then pull off second sheet of plastic. Heat a cast iron pan, pancake pan, sheet of steel, or a comal (below, about $8 at Ideal Market) over moderate heat. Ever seen a plan land? The back wheels land first followed by the front wheels. You want the side of the tortilla closest to you touching down first. Then sweep your hand out and gently place down the side of the tortilla furthest from you.

Cook for about 45 seconds on the first side. Flip it over (use your hands, pretty boy). And cook for another minute or so. You should see the tortilla puffing up a bit like a wimp with four beers in him. Once done, pull it off and keep it warm in a low oven, a plastic tortilla holder lined with a towel, or just wrap in a towel. Stuff them with anything you can fathom, melting Cotija cheese, juicy steak, or grilled veggies. Or all three. The tortilla can also be used as dessert. Take a warm tortilla, spread creamy peanut butter and a strawberry jam, fold into the palm of your hand, and enjoy. Begin searching for a tortilla tattoo.


Celeste said...

Do you know of a source for fresh masa in NOLA? I keep meaning to go to Ideal on Broad...fresh masa makes better tortillas, but I'm having trouble finding it locally.

Rene said...

If anyone would have it, Ideal would. I'll check next time I am in there. When I went last they were out of tortilla presses.

vmm said...

From the source - I work with quite a few Hondurans - they buy fresh masa at Wal-Mart or if you can't bear to go there, Ideal Market .

Celeste said...

@vmm, my WalMart only sells dried masa (Maseca). I'm looking for the soft, wet, freshly ground stuff.