One of the best parts of working in the Foreign Language Department of a university is the potlucks. Teachers from all over the world usually bring food from their countries, and oh, we eat so well--tamales, sushi, fabulous cheese, spaghetti with mussels....
One of my friends and colleagues, Maura, offered to show me how to make tortillas from scratch last year. (She's from Paraguay, where they don't eat tortillas, but she learned from her daughter's Mexican nanny.) It took two separate sessions, but I finally got to the point where I could make my own corn tortillas, and confidently enough to invite my in-laws over to partake of them this past weekend! And oh, they're so good. Rich, bursting with corn flavor, hot, pliable--I won't ever go back to grocery store tortillas again. I am so spoiled now!
The beauty of the fresh homemade tortilla is that you can do anything with it. Maura even eats them with Asian stir-fried veggies! All it takes is some shredded cheese, a little salsa, maybe sauteed shrimp or grilled fish. So simple, so good.
Interesting, though, that for a foodie gringo like me, this dish is exotic, requiring a special tortilla press, lessons, lots of "oh that one didn't work let's try it again," yet for millions of Mexicans it's breakfast, lunch, and dinner, made by women who are so practiced that they don't even need the tortilla press--they just pat the dough with their hands and end up with a uniformly flat and perfectly round piece.
Here's what Maura does, with my best guesses at proportions:
With your hands, mix 3 cups masa harina, 1 tsp salt, and 2 1/2 or 3 cups hot water. The batter will be very wet. Form it into balls a bit larger than golf balls and place them in a plastic bag. (The photo is of Maura and her daughter at one of my "lessons.")
Wrap the plates of a tortilla press with a cut-open plastic bag or plastic wrap. Place a dough ball inside and press down gently. Open the press, turn the plastic 90 degrees, then close the press more firmly. Open, then place your hand over the dough and press down firmly enough to leave indentations in the dough.
Put the tortilla in a hot cast iron skillet. After 3o seconds, turn it over. After 60 seconds, turn it over again. After about 30 more seconds, take a damp cloth and start pressing quickly all over the tortilla. Ideally what happens here is the top layer of the tortilla adheres to the cloth, pulling the it apart from the bottom layer apart as the cloth lifts. This puffing is highly desirable--it makes the tortilla less heavy and dense, and also permits you to fold the tortilla without it's cracking or breaking in half. After it puffs adequately, wrap it in a kitchen towel. Keep adding hot tortillas to the stack inside the towel, and they'll stay warm until you get them all eaten. Serves about 5 people.
At our tortilla party, we served them with the following choices for toppings: sauteed shrimp, pan-fried haddock (both seasoned with garlic, ancho chili powder, cumin, and salt), three salsas (mango-pineapple, tomato, and tomatillo), quesadilla cheese, chopped cilantro, sauteed mushrooms, guacamole, and sour cream. The side dishes and drink were pineapple-cilantro rice, vegetarian cast iron skillet beans, and a citrus spritzer with pineapple juice. (Unfortunately I can't find links for any of these--let me know if you want the recipes.)
Our dinner party was an unequivical success! My father-in-law made this analogy: grocery store tortillas are to fresh homemade tortillas as sliced sandwich bread is to artisan loaves. We all agreed! And even our nephew ate two tortillas all by himself.
Labels: dinner parties, Mexican cuisine