Who would have thought that making fresh corn tortillas would be so easy? I have watched for years as Magda takes her organic corn kernels to the local molina (corn grinder) in Teotitlan del Valle, then adds lime and salt, mixes the dough, tenderly pats out the little corn circles by hand, and tends them with her thumb and forefinger at the hot comal in the garden kitchen. I make a mental note: Too much trouble. Easier to buy them. But it doesn’t have to be like that!
I discovered the simplicity of homemade tortillas during the cooking class I recently took with Pilar Cabrera Arroya, chef of La Olla Restaurant in Oaxaca. She bought the masa (corn dough) already prepared fresh that morning at her local market. Back at class, we used the tortilla press to make 6″ tortillas that we used for mini-quesadillas — a perfect botana (appetizer).
So, back home in North Carolina I bought a similar tortilla press at my local Mexican tienda, stopped at my local organic market and purchased a bag of Bob’s Red Mill Masa Harina (not organic), followed the recipe on the bag and went to work. (Readers recommend using Gold Mine organic masa harina.) Of course, the comal (griddle) you see below is a thin steel one that I picked up from the Tlacolula market, hauled home and then seasoned. You might be able to find a comal like this at your local Mexican store, too. Thinner is better for making tortillas and roasting peppers, garlic, onions, tomatoes, etc. Season it first before using!
Steps for excellent, fresh and easy tortillas:
1. Mix the dough according to package instructions. Let it rest for an hour in a covered bowl. Test the dough with your thumb to be sure it is soft and no cracks appear on the surface. If needed, flick water on it, then knead to absorb moisture. Your thumb should make a nice, soft impression!
2. Take a small thin plastic bag that you have used to package your vegetables from the supermarket. Be sure it is clean has has no veggie residue on it. Cut it in half and trip off any excess. Lay one half on the bottom of the tortilla press.
3. Heat your comal on a medium-high burner. Do not add oil. The comal should be dry.
4. Form a 1-1/2″ to 2″ ball of masa with your palms. Center it on top of the plastic. Lay the second sheet of plastic on top of the ball. Press. Flip the plastic covered dough to the other side and press again. Flip and press again (3x).
5. Lift the plastic encased dough off the press. Gently remove one side of the plastic. Careful, don’t tear the edges of the tortilla! Then, remove the second sheet. Place on the hot comal.
6. Good things come in 3′s! Pilar says to cook the tortilla on one side for about 30-45 seconds, turn it, cook again, and then turn it and cook one more time. I like a little color on my tortilla, so you can watch to see how well you like it done. There should be little bubbles on the surface of the first side, then the second side should be smooth and a little puffy.
7. Make a little quesadilla: use Oaxaca string cheese (quesilla) or a slice of Swiss or Monterrey Jack cheese. Put the tortilla back on the hot comal. Add the cheese, a tablespoon of green salsa verde, chopped onion or scallion, a sprig of cilantro, and Buen Provecho!
And the taste is so much better than what you could buy in the store. Plus, this would be a great party activity — make your own tortillas!
P.S. Come to Oaxaca with us for the 2011 Day of the Dead Documentary Photography Expedition led by Bill Bamberger. Register today!