Monday, 21 November 2011

Adventures in Tortilla-Making

I don't own a tortilla-press, which is perhaps why I attempted tamales before I tried making my own corn tortillas. Even after I bought a bag of real Mexican masa harina from Lupe Pintos (Maseca, which is the leading brand in Mexico), the first tortillas I made were actually panuchos.

Before I read Two Cooks and a Suitcase I had never heard of panuchos, and unless you've lived in Yucatán, you probably haven't either, so I will explain.

Panuchos are extra-thick corn tortillas with pockets cut into them, sort of like a Mexican version of pita bread. The pockets are filled with refried beans or black beans; then the panuchos are shallow-fried. Just before serving they are topped with something like shredded pollo pibil and some Yucatecan pickled red onions (cebollas en escabeche) - or just the onions, if it's a snack or a light lunch you're after.

Obviously, stuffed and fried tortillas would be tempting enough on their own, but it was equally the "extra-thick" part that appealed to me, as I thought they would be easier to make without a tortilla-press.

When I was in college, I saw this film about Guatemalan refugees called El Norte (which you should definitely check out). In one early scene, a young girl makes tortillas by patting them back and forth from hand to hand. I figured I could try this technique for my panuchos. How hard could it be?

So I made a batch of masa dough and patted out some panuchos.

It's pretty tricky to get it right your first time, so the first few were a bit wonky, but most were usable, shape-wise. One caveat for anyone trying this at home: there is no way to get perfectly round edges on a homemade tortilla unless you trim it using a bowl or something, which I've never bothered to do.

The recipe I had (again from Two Cooks), said that when you flip the tortilla to cook the other side, you must press down gently to get it to puff (essential for the pocketed panuchos). I didn't believe them. I thought, how could pressing down in the middle cause a great puffy pocket to form? So I pressed down firmly around the edges for the first one. And nothing happened.

I can't remember now if I decided to try pressing down in the middle on the second or third panucho, but I regardless, I eventually trusted the recipe enough and pressed down in the middle with my spatula. And behold: it puffed! Not a helluva lot, but enough to create a pocket.

Fresh-cooked tortillas and their relatives are hot to touch, so I let them cool in a pile on some kitchen paper. Then I gingerly tried opening the pockets with a sharp knife.

Obviously the first one or two had no pocket because they hadn't puffed properly, but most were definitely usable. I made more than enough, so I decided to choose the best looking six (three per person).

Once they had been fried, I arranged them in a triangle patten on the plate, with a neat pile of pollo en pipián in the middle, plus a trio of garnishes in the colours of the Mexican flag: chopped tomatoes, diced avocado, and sour cream (one for each panucho). I wish I had a picture of this, but I didn't record my food back then.

Naturally I made cebollas en escabeche as well, but I'm making them again this weekend, and they deserve a post of their own.

The second time I made "panuchos", I was really after plain tortillas to go with the mole sauce I got for my birthday, but (again owing to no tortilla press) I lacked confidence to make them. Further, Rick Bayless confirms in his book Authentic Mexican, that the hand-patting technique I saw in El Norte is practised in Mexico as well, though discouragingly he doubts a non-native could ever learn it.

My first batch of panuchos had looked a bit rustic, but the last two of my second batch looked almost right, so I did begin to hope I could eventually master this. (All the the panuchos tasted lovely, by the way, so if you're making this at home don't worry too much about looks. Dinner will still be delicious.)

The hand-patting technique is even a plot point in my story. Esteban impresses his friend's mother by hand-patting tortillas, which she hasn't seen since her childhood in Mexico. This friend becomes Esteban's business partner for his first restaurant and an investor in his second.

However, my own hand-patting experiments were brought to a halt by a tip from Thomasina Miers' Mexican Food Made Simple. In the absence of a tortilla press, she recommends placing the ball of masa dough in a large ziploc bag and rolling it out as if it were a pastry. This works a charm, though the edges are still not very round (again, you could use a cutter or trace around a bowl if you want perfect edges).

I first tried this out the Sunday after I made the disastrous alternate version of sopa de lima. I had hella broth left over, plus some of the hot chiles, and I needed something to do with them. There were also some bits of veg left in the fridge from the week's other meals: cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, sweet peppers, etc.

Thomasina Miers only includes four recipes for taco fillings, one for each season, and all are veg-heavy, with two or three exclusively vegetarian. This gave me an idea: make some corn tortillas, sauté the veg with some of the broth and some Mexican seasonings, and make tacos.

This calls for a bit of exposition. In Mexico, tacos are not those fried U-shaped things filled with ground beef. In the first place, beef is not widely eaten on Mexico, apart from in the North. Chicken, pork, and goat are the main meats. Secondly, the U-shape things are a complete US invention. Real Mexican tacos are either not fried (what we would think of as "soft tacos", but with corn tortillas), or if they are fried, they are first rolled into a cigar shape (like what we call "taquitos").

Tacos are street food: really nothing more than a warm corn tortilla informally wrapped around whatever stewed, fried, or grilled fillings the taco vender has on hand, with maybe some salsa on top for good measure. And they are both more delicious and easier to rest than the American imposters.

Now, back to my tacos.

I seasoned the veg with epazote, jalapeño, and some ground allspice berries (which was a revelation to me, as far as Mexican cuisine goes) and just a bit of the leftover soup. The rest of the soup I used to cook arroz blanco.  For something I just made up out of what was on hand, the sauteed veg was delicious. In fact, it could stand up to any planned dish. But the real stars were the tortillas.

The recipe for tortilla dough from masa harina is simplicity itself: one part masa harina to one and a quarter parts warm water. Bring the dough together with your hands and knead for ten minutes. The let it rest for half an hour. Tortilla dough is made from warm or room-temperature ingredients, so rest it on the counter, not in the fridge, but cover it with clingfilm to keep it from drying out. If it's to dry after resting (and won't hold together when you roll it out), work a bit more water into it.

There are few things I love more than the gorgeous corn smell you get when you add warm water to masa harina. It always fills me with a combination of good memories and anticipation.

Thomasina's rolling advice was spot on, and I got the best-looking tortillas I'd ever made, but the real triumph was when I flipped them and watched them puff. Next time I make tacos I'll try to make video of it. Until then, here's a picture of my impromptu vegetation tacos and white rice (tacos de verduras con arroz blanco).

Next time: Yucatecan pickled onions get their own post.