Saturday, October 15, 2005

Easy as Corn Tortillas

All through my childhood, I viewed corn tortillas as just being "okay". They were often dry and bland. Flour tortillas, though not often completely insipred, had a chewiness and breadier flavor that I prefered. This opinion completely changed the day that I made corn tortillas at home. In fairness, since memory is not always completely accurate, I am sure that I had reached some level of acceptance of corn tortillas before I made them myself. If I hadn't, why would I have thought to make them?
Corn tortillas, made fresh, are tender and flavorful. They also couldn't be easier: masa harina and water. I often add a pinch of salt, but you can easily spice them up if you'd like. Masa harina is a very finely ground corn flour, finer than ordinary cornmeal. Masa harina is inexpensive and widely available in California, but you may need to visit a specialty store to find some in your area. Corn is dried, cooked, ground up and dried again. It is cooked in water with slaked lime, the only culinary application of this rock that I am aware of, which gives the masa its unique flavor.
Corn tortillas are usually made smaller than flour tortillas. Once you have your dough, roll it into 1 1/2-2 inch balls, roughly the size of a golf ball, and roll them out. You can use a tortilla press, but if you have a tortilla press, you probably already know how to make corn tortillas. Some very skilled tortilla-makers can press the dough out thin enough with their hands, but I use a rolling pin and place the dough between sheets of wax paper. The tortillas are dry cooked in a hot skillet. Once they come off the heat, store them between two dishtowels. The trapped moisture and warmth will keep the tortillas soft and tender until you are ready to eat them. Corn tortillas are best if eaten shortly after they are made.
In the photo above, I filled the tortillas with sauteed portabello mushrooms, fresh salsa and avocado. You can also cut them into triangles and deep fry them to make your own tortilla chips.

Corn Tortillas
2 cups masa harina
1 cup + 2 tbsp water
pinch salt (optional)

Combine masa and water in a large bowl. Mix until a smooth, but not dry or sticky, dough forms. You may need to add a bit more water or a bit more masa. Break dough into golf ball-sized pieces (1 1/2-2 inch balls) and cover it with plastic wrap. Placing dough between two pieces of wax paper, on a flat surface, roll each one until it is a rough circle, 6 inches in diameter. It should be fairly thin, but the thickness is a matter of taste. If the dough tears, simply roll it back up and try again. After a few, you'll get a feel for how thick to roll them. Stack them up between pieces of wax paper.
Heat a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Place tortilla on the skillet and cook for 30-60 seconds on each side. The surface of the tortilla will look slightly dry. Taste the first tortilla to see if you would prefer it cooked slightly more or less. The timing is not critical.
Place cooked tortillas between two clean dish towels to keep them moist until ready to eat.
Makes about 12 tortillas.