Sunday, August 28, 2022

My Tortilla Memoir: Mexican food and learning to make tortillas from scratch

Taco filling:
Beans, cheese, arugula, tomatoes, avocado lime crema.
Not shown: cauliflower, jackfruit, salsa, guacamole. 

On and off (mostly off) over the last decade, I've been teaching myself how to make corn tortillas from scratch.

It's pretty funny, considering that I have no tradition of Mexican food in my family;  I'm Polish-Jewish on Mom's side, English/Irish/Swiss WASP on Dad's.  None of those groups are known for their corn/beans/chile traditions.  My Polish grandmother was an excellent French cook (funny story - when I was about 14, my grandfather once said, "how come you never make me French food anymore?" and my grandmother replied, "Arthur, I only make you French food!"), and my mother is pretty great at cooking savory foods, but with zero bite (she hates spicy food).  So, spicy food and corn and beans (other than a 3-bean salad which I didn't care for) were not a big part of my childhood. 

In college, my friends introduced me to Taco Bell, which was pretty good for fast food, but nothing special. If you'd asked me then what my favorite ethnic food was, I'd probably have said Italian, because, pizza, I guess?

And then in grad school, I met my my future husband, and he loved Mexican food.  He'd grown up in SoCal and even though his family isn't any more Latin-American than mine, he lived in proximity to many Mexican restaurants. And unlike my family, his parents both tolerated some spice, and liked Mexican cuisine.  

Anyway, when we went out, he always steered us toward Mexican restaurants. Los Bandidos in Columbia, Missouri had the best spinach queso.  Blue Cactus had GREAT spinach enchiladas, but to his horror, I ordered mine in (gasp) flour tortillas, because for years I preferred flour tortillas to corn, which Chris found unfathomable. I also grew up thinking I didn't really like beans, and after tasting frijoles from his plate a few times, I realized beans were pretty good, too. I love them now.

Back then, it seemed like corn tortillas came in two varieties: fried taco shells which break as you eat them, or soft ones that broke when you tried to fold them up. I did figure out that if you wrapped the stack of corn tortillas in damp paper towels, set the stack on a plate, and placed another plate upside down over the stack, forming a covered dish, you could microwave it and that this would steam-soften them enough to eat as tacos without splitting. (Usually, anyway).

Somewhere along the way, I guess I picked up a wooden tortilla press at the grocery store - and Chris said I made them a couple of times but they were pretty thick as I recall, and I preferred the store-bought kind for their pliability. 

Then, about 8-10 years ago, I acquired a copy of Crescent Dragonwagon's The Cornbread Gospels, and there was a recipe for tortillas, and I thought what the hell, and gave it a try again using Maseca masa harina, which is a type of corn flour. You add water until it's the consistency of play dough, press it flat, and fry them on a griddle.  I knew I didn't like the wooden press which couldn't get them thin enough, so I upgraded to an inexpensive cast iron model (which I am still using) that was capable of getting them quite thin.  They turned out great, so I started making them occasionally as a treat.

Through all this, my dad was in declining health - he had an illness called multiple systems atrophy which looks a lot like Parkinson's, but is terminal, usually within 8 or so years of diagnosis.  In November of 2012, a family friend called me and said it was time to start driving home to see him more often, that it wouldn't be long; they were guessing a few months at most. So my brother and I made the 9-hour drive in November, January, and again in late February to see him as often as we could. In February, it became obvious that Dad would die soon, so we stayed for almost three weeks.  It was a painful time, but I'm grateful we could be together the way we were, to be there for each other, and for Dad as his life coasted to a stop.

On the Sunday before Dad died, I offered to make taco fillings and fresh tortillas (I'd brought my press and some masa harina along) if Mom made the taco meat. She agreed and we invited a few friends over for an impromptu dinner party. Dad sat at the table in his wheelchair, and didn't talk much, though he seemed to enjoy being surrounded by his family and friends.  Dad was under 100 pounds by then, and wasn't eating much, but as he sat at the table for this last quiet dinner party, he ate a few bites of my fresh tortillas and taco fillings, and I will always remember his eyes widening as he whispered, "oh, it's good!" That night he went to bed, and never really woke up again (He did say "hi" to the hospice nurses on Wednesday, though).  He passed on Thursday, March 6th, 2013.

It gives me a sublimely painful joy knowing that I cooked my father's last meal, that I introduced him to fresh tortillas, and that he liked them, too.

I didn't make tortillas again for more than three years. It just hurt too much. But, about a year after Dad died, I did decide that corn tortillas - even store-bought ones - really were superior - that while I liked flour for burritos, the flavor of corn was just so much better, and I will always remember Chris's delight - it was as if I'd seen the light, at last.

Then in the spring of 2019, my daughter went to Costa Rica with her HS Spanish Club, and during the homestay, she was served fresh tortillas, that were made from fresh masa, not masa harina, and they were even better than the ones I made.

So I did a little research: it turns out that masa harina isn't just finely ground corn meal; rather it is ground dried hominy. Hominy is corn that has been cooked/soaked in an alkaline solution, in a process called nixtamalization (note the the root word 'tamal;' it share the same root as tamale).

Turns out that more than 1000 years ago, people figured out that if you cooked corn with wood ash, that made the corn healthier to eat, and safe to use as a staple food.  Today we know that the process also reduces mold toxins present in the corn by almost 100%, so people were also less likely to get food poisoning, and it radically increases the bioavailability of niacin and other nutrients including calcium.

During the Columbian Exchange, corn was taken back to the old world, but without the knowledge of nixtamalization, and where corn became a staple, people wound up a niacin deficiency called pellagra that can be fatal. And one of the weirder symptoms of the disease is light sensitivity, and get this - historians theorize that pellagra may be the origin of the vampire myth.

But ... wood ash. I wonder how they figured that out?  Cool that they did, though.

Anyway, the nixtamalization changes the chemistry of the corn enough that you can form a dough with the ground masa by adding a little water to it.  Can't do that with cornmeal, no matter how finely ground it is - it falls apart.

We wanted to experience real tortillas as Kivi had (but without the expense of flying to central America).  I had to start from scratch, and acquired some pickling lime, and used some plain yellow field corn I had on hand. It's pretty easy. Add 1.5 tsp of lime to a gallon of boiling water, then drop 4 cups of corn into it.  You know the solution is properly alkaline if the base of the kernels turn from white to yellow. Simmer it for 40 mins (until the corn is soft enough to break open with your thumbnail) and the inside is about 50% chalky/uncooked and 50% translucent from cooking. Turn off the heat, and let it soak in the alkaline solution overnight.

Next day, you rinse away the pericarp (the clear shell enclosing the kernel) and grind the now-swollen corn. I did it in my food processor.  You have to add a lot of water when using that tool to get the corn to continue blending, and that makes it too wet (think hominy baby food). So then you add masa harina to it until it's dry enough to form a dough. From there the process is the same. Form it into golf-ball sized chunks, press it, and fry it on a hot, dry griddle. Wrap the cooked tortilla in a dish towel to steam.

And holy mackerel it was GREAT. Much better than when starting with masa harina flour.  And no comparison with the ones from the grocery store.  The corn aroma is stunningly strong with these tortillas. Kivi said they were just like the ones she had in Costa Rica.

I was so inspired by my results, that I ordered a variety of 5-lb bags of heirloom corn varietals from Mexico from a distributor in California (Masienda), that had been bred for hundreds of years to be great in tortillas and tamales, etc. I figured that if my nothing-special yellow dent corn turned out so well, that actual Mexican corn varieties would be even better. Right?

I also ordered a Victoria corn mill because they've been successfully used for generations, too. Seems like it should be more consistent than my food processor, and with a proper mill, masa won't come out too wet. 

And … the next two batches were failures. Tasted like cardboard and they broke when bent around taco fillings. After spending several hundred dollars on fancy corn, it was … disappointing. I went into a 3 year tortilla sulk and I haven’t made them since. Part of it was the move - I just haven't had time, and I didn't know where my press or my corn mill were and the corn sat waiting for me in an airtight pet-food vault.

Then, a week ago, Kivi (who was evidently planning really far ahead), and requested them for her birthday dinner (in December) so I decided I needed to a) get over my sulk, b) start practicing, and c) figure out a trial-and error plan until I figured out how to make them right.  I nixtamalized the corn on Friday and yesterday afternoon, thinking that maybe I didn’t grind the masa finely enough before, I decided to put it through the grinder a second time. And maybe that WAS the issue because these turned out pretty well.  Soft enough to bend without breaking, strong enough to hold together until the taco is consumed:

Strong, yet tender and pliable.  

My goal is to make masa in bulk, and freeze it in meal-size portions. So when we want tortillas, just defrost the masa, adjust the moisture levels, roll into balls, press and cook.  Aside from the defrost time, it takes no more than 15 minutes to make enough for a meal, and that's totally worth it for such good tortillas.

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